A protester waves the French flag over a barricade made of christmas trees during the "yellow vest" protests in Paris on Saturday
PARIS - 2 December 2018: Anti-government protesters torched dozens of cars and set fire to storefronts during daylong clashes with riot police across central Paris on Saturday, as thousands took part in fresh "yellow vest" protests against high fuel taxes.
Officers responded with tear gas after being targeted by protesters hurling rocks and other projectiles on the third weekend of demonstrations which have morphed into a broader rebuke of President Emmanuel Macron.
Smoke engulfed several shopping districts as the violence spread from the Arc de Triomphe, where crowds had gathered earlier hoping to march down the Champs-Elysees.
While several dozens were allowed into the avenue after an ID check and search, many others -- some wearing gas masks or ski goggles -- remained behind and fought police manning barricades and water cannon.
Protesters then led police on cat-and-mouse chases through other parts of the capital, setting cars and construction equipment alight and smashing windows.
An assault rifle was stolen from a police vehicle, a source told AFP, though it was unclear if it was armed.
One person was in critical condition after protesters pulled down one of the huge iron gates of the Tuileries garden facing the famed Louvre museum, crushing several people.
"Those responsible for this violence don't want change or improvement, they want chaos," President Emmanuel Macron said from Buenos Aires where he was attending a G20 summit.
"No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc du Triomphe is defiled," he said.
Authorities said at least 260 people had been arrested and nearly 100 injured, including 14 of the 5,000 police officers mobilised for the protests.
- 'Idiots who come to fight' -
An estimated 75,000 demonstrators, most of them peaceful, were counted across the country in the afternoon, the interior ministry said.
The number was well below the first day of protests on November 17, which attracted around 282,000 people, and also down from the 106,000 who turned out last Saturday.
Acrid plumes of smoke and tear gas, however, were testament to the escalation in violence in Paris, to the consternation of many of the "yellow vests", so-called for the high-visibility jackets they wear.
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.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, speaking on French television, attributed the violence to "specialists in sowing conflict, specialists in destruction" but said the situation was largely under control.
"We're a peaceful movement, but we're disorganised -- it's a mess because we don't have a leader," said Dan Lodi, a 68-year-old pensioner on the Champs-Elysees.
"You always have some idiots who come to fight, but they don't represent us at all," he said.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe's office said he would cancel his trip to Poland on Sunday for the COP24 climate summit to meet with Macron after the violence.
- 'Macron has to listen' -
Stores and restaurants along the Champs-Elysees as well as surrounding streets had boarded up windows, anticipating a repeat of the clashes last Saturday which Macron compared to "war scenes".
Chantal, a 61-year-old pensioner, said she was avoiding the "hooligans" but was determined to send Macron a message on the rising costs of living.
"He has to come down off his pedestal," she said under rain in the Champs-Elysees. "Every month I have to dip into my savings."
Others voiced indignation at graffiti sprayed on the Arc de Triomphe, a monument to French war dead, including phrases like "Macron resign" and "the yellow vests triumph".
The "yellow vest" movement erupted on social media in October and has since become a wider protest against Macron, who is accused of failing to recognise the rising cost of living that has left many struggling.
The countrywide protests have included many pensioners and have been most active in small urban and rural areas where demonstrators blocked roads, closed motorway toll booths, and even walled up the entrance to tax offices.
Two people have died and dozens have been injured in the rallies, which opinion polls suggest still attract the support of two out of three French people.
Attempts by the government to negotiate with the grassroots movement have failed, in large part because representatives have insisted on public talks broadcast on TV.
Macron has sought to douse the anger by promising three months of nationwide talks on how best to transform France into a low-carbon economy without penalising the poor.
He also vowed to slow the rate of increase in fuel taxes if international oil prices rise too rapidly but only after a tax hike due in January.