“It's burning!” yelled a fleeing woman as two fires gained strength along the Boulevard des Capucines in central Paris.
Police sirens blared along chic avenues decked out with Christmas decorations, where stores usually packed with holiday shoppers remained shut, their windows boarded up as if awaiting a hurricane.
“She's panicking!” a mother said of her daughter, imploring a waiter to give them shelter at the opulent Cafe de la Paix, just next to the Opera Garnier.
A few blocks away, paving stones and bricks littered the streets near the Madeleine church, while nearby an “A” in a circle, the sign of anarchy, was spray-painted on a bank.
“We don't know if it's safe or not, it's scary,” said Giselle Rosano, a Brazilian based in Berlin, after being turned back from the Boulevard Haussmann by an officer in riot gear.
Across the capital thick smoke billowed from makeshift barricades set ablaze, and near the famed Champs-Elysees avenue the carcass of a construction digger smouldered.
It was the third straight Saturday of “yellow vest” protests against fuel taxes which has provided a focus for anti-President Emmanuel Macron sentiment.
“Social justice or chaos”. Photo: AFP
Although fewer protesters turned out, those who did appeared determined to take on the thousands of police deployed to contain the damage.
“I support the yellow vests, but seeing all this violence, this mess, makes me want to cry,” Fanny, a 47-year-old nurse, told AFP.
“It's like the Revolution,” she said.
'Kill the bourgeois'
Many of the protesters had hoped Macron would hear their complaints about the rising cost of living and their struggle to make ends meet on low salaries or pensions.
But instead, news channels showed young men wearing scarves or even gas masks, some marching with a banner reading “The people are desperate, Kill the bourgeois.”
Along the opulent Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe, home to embassies and luxury residences, protesters ripped out benches to form a blockade, one person waving a skull and bones pirate flag.
“The situation is crazy. Our teams tell me it's an insurrection,” said Antoine Berth, a spokesman for the far-right group Action Francaise.
“I see that the revolutionary tradition is still quite embedded in France,” said Augustin Terlinden, a 33-year-old Belgian out jogging near the Arc de Triomphe.
Elsewhere, a protester wearing one of the high-visibility yellow vests had his head covered in blood. “I met up with a cop,” he explained.
While many demonstrators as well as politicians deplored the violence, others said Macron was paying the price for refusing to budge on fuel taxes, which are set to rise again in January.
Chantal, a 45-year-old who came from Lorraine in eastern France to attend the protest with her husband and two children, said “Macron's silence” had been met with “legitimate violence.”
“Every month I finish with a 500-euro ($565) overdraft. We haven't taken a holiday in three years,” said Chantal, a civil servant who said she earned 1,700 euros a month.
Romain, a 39-year-old worker at the Opera Garnier, called the vandalism “a necessary evil” and “a way to express yourself.”
“But burning people's cars, that's not cool,” he said.