Protestors in central Paris have stolen an assault rifle from a police vehicle as authorities struggle to contain violence that has left at least 80 people injured and brought the French capital to a standstill.
The crowds, who are angry over rising taxes and the high cost of living, have sprayed graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe, torched at least one car, and broke through the metal fence of the Tuileries gardens.
French police are struggling to regain the upper hand against violent the “yellow jacket” protesters, resorting to water cannons to try to quell the demonstration.
Police Union officials confirmed to Reuters that an assault rifle had been taken. There are no reports it has been used.
Near the Ritz hotel, not far from high-end boutiques and restaurants, and in the avenues off the Arc de Triomphe, where several foreign embassies are located, gangs of violent protesters ran riot, setting a police van on fire and overturning cars. At least two buildings were aflame.
In one video posted to social media, smoke can be seen bellowing from the area around the Eiffel Tower.
British tourist Lucy Oulton, told HuffPost UK: “It’s a really weird atmosphere, like things could get really heated at any moment.
“There’s a weird mix of tourists and rioters and protests and the air smells like fireworks.”
Around Saint Lazare station, the windows of a bank were smashed before police on horseback moved down the main street, pushing protesters back. A branch of an insurance company was sprayed with graffiti reading “Macron in prison”.
In other areas, there appeared to be very little police presence. Reuters reporters on the streets witnessed masked young men smashing the windows of a police van and then setting it alight.
Firemen arrived to douse the flames. But only minutes later, another group of young men arrived, and after failing to overturn the van they detonated firecrackers inside it, causing a series of explosions.
Tourists near the famed Galeries Lafayette department store were alarmed by the uncontrolled outpouring of violence.
“We went to the Galeries Lafayette as we thought we would be safe there but then we were evacuated by staff and security,” said Tina Holten, a 35-year-old visitor from Denmark. “We felt safe inside but now that we are outside we are very scared. We can’t find anywhere to go.”
On the Rue de la Paix, one of Paris’s most expensive shopping streets, piles of Christmas trees were left smouldering after firemen put out at least three blazes. The jewellery stores and fashion boutiques were locked up, but colourful Christmas decorations on the street were still sparkling.
The U.S. embassy issued a statement urging citizens to be careful, saying that “violent clashes between police and protesters” continued in at least three of Paris’s 20 districts, known as arrondissements.
“Avoid all demonstrations, seek shelter in the vicinity of clashes, follow instructions of security personnel,” it said.
It was unclear what plans the police had to shut down the roving groups of protesters. Near the Arc de Triomphe, they moved in to try to control the violence, but in other areas of the city, there was next to no presence of security forces.
It is the worst unrest the city has seen since at least 2005, when the outskirts of the capital were in flames over tension between the police and the youth of poor suburbs known as “banlieus”, demonstrating over deaths of two young people.