PARIS — French yellow vest protesters set fires along a march route through Paris on Saturday to drive home their message to a government they see as out of touch with the problems of the poor: that rebuilding the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral isn’t the only problem France needs to solve.
Like the high-visibility vests the protesters wear, the scattered small fires in Paris appeared to be a collective plea to the government to “look at me — I need help too!”
Police fired water cannon and sprayed tear gas to try to control radical elements on the margins of the largely peaceful march, one of several actions around Paris and other French cities.
The protesters were marking the 23rd straight weekend of yellow vest actions against economic inequality and President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which they see as favoring the wealthy and big business at the expense of ordinary workers. Protesters see themselves as standing up for beleaguered French workers, students and retirees who have been battered by high unemployment, high taxes and shrinking purchasing power.
Associated Press reporters saw a car, motorbikes and barricades set ablaze around the Place de la Republique plaza in eastern Paris. The smell of tear gas fired by police mixed with the smoke, choking the air.
Paris firefighters — who struggled earlier this week to prevent the 12th-century Notre Dame from collapsing — quickly responded to extinguish the flames at Saturday’s protest.
One masked protester dressed in black jumped on a Mercedes parked along the march route, smashing its front and back windshields.
Paris police headquarters said authorities detained 137 people by early afternoon and carried out spot checks on more than 14,000 people trying to enter the capital for Saturday’s protests.
The tensions focused on a march of several thousand people that started at the Finance Ministry in eastern Paris to demand lower taxes on workers and retirees and higher taxes on the rich.
Another group of about 200 people tried to march to the president’s Elysee Palace in central Paris, but riot police blocked them at the neo-classical Madeleine Church.
Yet another group tried to demonstrate yellow vest mourning over the Notre Dame blaze while also keeping up the pressure on Macron. They wanted to march to Notre Dame itself, but were banned by police, who set up a large security perimeter around the area.
One protester carried a huge wooden cross resembling those carried in Good Friday processions as he walked on a nearby Paris embankment.
Many protesters were deeply saddened by the fire at a national monument . But at the same time they are angry at the $1 billion in donations for Notre Dame renovations that poured in from French tycoons while their own economic demands remain largely unmet and they struggle to make ends meet.
“I think what happened at Notre Dame is a great tragedy but humans should be more important than stones. And if humans had a little bit more money, they too could help finance the reconstruction work at Notre Dame. I find this disgusting,” said protester Jose Fraile.
Some 60,000 police officers were mobilized for Saturday’s protests across France. The movement is largely peaceful but extremists have attacked treasured monuments, shops and banks and clashed with police.
The heavy police presence meant subway stations and roads around Paris were closed Saturday, thwarting tourists trying to enjoy the French capital on a warm spring day.
“Paris is very difficult right now,” said Paul Harlow, of Kansas City, Missouri, as he looked sadly at the damaged Notre Dame.
He and his wife Susan were in Paris only for a few days and didn’t make it in time to see the cathedral. On Saturday, their efforts to visit museums were derailed by closed subways and barricaded roads.
“I don’t think we’ll be back,” he said.
Other visitors showed solidarity with the yellow vest cause.
“I am not interested in joining them, but I can understand what they’re angry about,” said Antonio Costes, a retiree from the Paris suburb of Montreuil who came Saturday to see the damage to Notre Dame. “There is a lot of injustice.”
Macron had been scheduled to lay out his responses to yellow vest concerns on Monday night — but canceled the speech because the Notre Dame fire broke out. He’s now expected to do so next Thursday.
Some yellow vest critics accuse Macron of trying to exploit the fire for political gain. One protester carried a sign targeting Macron that read: “Pyromaniac – we are going to carbonize you.”
Another huge sign read: “Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Miserables,” referring to the famed author’s novels about the cathedral and the struggles of France’s poor.
Some prominent yellow vest figures who had stopped protesting said they were returning to the streets Saturday out of an even greater sense of being overlooked since the Notre Dame tragedy.
Anti-rich messages have flourished on social media in recent days as yellow vest protesters exhorted wealthy donors to be more generous with France’s working class.
Chris den Hond, Francisco Seco and Deborah Gouffran in Paris contributed to this report.