French police arrested over 200 people and used water cannon and teargas on Tuesday against masked protesters who smashed shop windows and hurled petrol bombs, hijacking a planned peaceful May Day rally by labor unions.
The clashes came against a backdrop of union discontent with President Emmanuel Macron over his plans to stimulate France’s economy and spur jobs growth by loosening labor regulations.
Riot police in Paris had warned on Monday of possible clashes with far-left anarchist groups, known as Black Blocs, after a call on social media to make Tuesday a “Revolutionary Day”.
Authorities said around 1,200 masked and hooded protesters garbed in black turned up on the sidelines of the annual May Day demonstration by labor unions.
More than 200 anarchists were arrested and four people, including a police officer, were lightly wounded in the ensuing disturbances, Paris police chief Michel Delpuech told a news conference.
Protesters smashed windows of businesses, including a Renault garage and McDonalds restaurant near the Austerlitz train station in eastern Paris. They also ransacked shops, torched cars and scrawled anti-capitalist graffiti on walls before eventually being dispersed by police.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb condemned the violence and said everything was being done to apprehend the culprits.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux criticized the protesters for covering their faces. “When you have sincere convictions, you demonstrate with your face unmasked,” he said. “Those who wear hoods are the enemies of democracy.”
The protesters chanted anti-fascist slogans, waved old Soviet flags and anti-government banners and threw firecrackers. Some started to erect barricades.
David Le Bars, a police union official, told BFM TV that security services had opted to let the protesters smash things rather than engage them to avoid casualties on either side that could exacerbate tensions.
“They came to hit capitalist symbols and burn cops. When you come with Molotov cocktails, it’s to burn cops,” he said, pointing to clashes on May 1 last year that saw one police officer seriously burnt.
Under a union campaign to foil Macron’s economic reforms, railway staff have begun three months of nationwide rolling strikes against a planned overhaul of state-run railway SNCF.
Discontent over Macron’s policies has spread beyond the railways and the May Day protests were intended to send a message of defiance to the former investment banker, who is currently on a trip to Australia.
Earlier on Tuesday Macron reiterated that he would not back down on his reform agenda.
Unions put the number of peaceful protesters at Tuesday’s main May Day rally in Paris at about 55,000, though police put it at around 20,000. The numbers were relatively small compared to other recent demonstrations.
Police said the Black Blocs had mixed into a second rally of 14,500 people set up alongside the official union movement.
Opposition conservative and far-right politicians accused Macron’s government of being insufficiently prepared for the violent protests and criticized it for not cracking down more heavily on anarchists.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, said he believed far-right groups were responsible for the violence.