PARIS — A third week of anti-government protests intensified in violence on Saturday, as demonstrators burned cars, smashed windows and confronted riot police firing tear gas in the heart of Paris in the most serious crisis of President Emmanuel Macron’s administration.
The ‘‘Yellow Vest’’ protests — spurred by a hike in the gasoline tax, and named for the roadside safety vests worn by the demonstrators — have emerged as a spontaneous outcry over declining living standards.
Diffuse, seemingly leaderless and organized over the internet, they have drawn deepening and widespread support around the country, where other demonstrations were mostly peaceful on Saturday.
But in Paris the protests took a more sinister turn as they were joined by extremists on the left and right, anarchists and organized labor, all seeking to capitalize on the simmering discontent. The violence crossed a new threshold for the Macron administration, and raised alarm even in a country where organized protest is commonplace.
Even if mostly perpetrated by vandals who have now latched on to the movement, the symbolism of the day’s violence was powerful. A modern-day peasants’ and workers’ revolt against a president increasingly disdained for his regal remove turned the country’s richest boulevards and most prominent landmarks into a veritable war zone.
Confrontations between the police and demonstrators, alongside the professional vandals called “casseurs” by the French, spread to several of the city’s most famous sites including Concorde and Trocadero. Overturned cars, some in flames, burned in parts of the 1st arrondissement and the 8th arrondissement far from the Champs-Élysées.
Inside the Tuileries Gardens, a car burned in front of the Orangerie. On one side of the burning car was a mass of Yellow Vests and “casseurs,” and on the other a line of riot police, at the Place de la Concorde end of the Tuileries. The demonstrators moved forward and the police responded with a volley of tear gas, scattering the Yellow Vests and the vandals.
On the other side of the Rue de Rivoli from the Tuileries, several store windows had been smashed in, including at the high-end clothing store Zadig & Voltaire.
By nightfall, major thoroughfares were covered in broken glass and the smell of tear gas mixed with the smoke from the burning cars. Some 100 people had been injured, including one who was in a coma after being hit by a railing that was torn down by protesters near the Tuileries; 268 people had been arrested, according to the police.
It did not help that Mr. Macron was 7,000 miles away in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the Group of 20 economic summit meeting. Even there, the outburst could not be dismissed or ignored, as his government has mostly tried to do over the past few weeks.
‘‘What happened today in Paris has nothing to do with the peaceful expression of legitimate anger,” said Mr. Macron, who returns Sunday to Paris.
“Nothing justifies attacking the security forces, vandalizing businesses, either private or public ones, or that passers-by or journalists are threatened, or the Arc de Triomphe defaced,” he said.
His prime minister, Edouard Philippe, made a point of distinguishing between those who had come prepared to fight the police and those with whom the government was willing to talk.
“We are attached to freedom of expression, but also to respect for the law,” said Mr. Philippe, who canceled a planned trip to a climate conference in Poland because of the violence. “I am shocked by the violence of such a symbol of France,” he said, referring to the clashes around the Arc de Triomphe and graffiti sprayed on it that read “Yellow Vests Will Triumph.”
Yet it was two weeks into the protests before the government, which had been giving the demonstrators a cold shoulder, agreed to meet with them. Earlier, government officials had offered to increase subsidies for buying fuel-efficient cars and installing less-polluting home heating systems, but the protesters indicated that was insufficient since many do not have enough money to buy even a subsidized car.
Mr. Philippe then called a meeting with Yellow Vest representatives for Nov. 30. However, since the movement has no leader or even really any representatives, it was unclear whom he invited. The result was that only one or two Yellow Vests showed up at Mr. Philippe’s official residence at Matignon, a grand house in Paris’ chic 7th arrondissement.
The meeting was “interesting, frank and respectful,” said Mr. Philippe, adding that his door remained open.
But the “open door” was undercut by other ministers who publicly said there would be no backing down on the government’s new gas taxes or its overall program.
The good-cop, bad-cop approach did not go over well. A large group of Yellow Vests in Paris marched peacefully with a banner that said, “Macron, Stop Taking Us for Stupid People.”
Asked if this referred to the government’s mixed messages, one of the marchers who was holding the edge of the banner said: “Of course. Who does he think we are?”
A Yellow Vest representative from Indres, a department in the center of France, who was interviewed on BFM, a television network here, said that Mr. Macron had to take drastic steps to quell the unrest “recognizing that this is a serious moment for our country.”
The problem the government faces is that different factions of the Yellow Vests have different demands. While they all want a better standard of living, some are furious at Mr. Macron for what they see as unjust tax policies that help the rich but do nothing for the poor, and they want him out of office. Others are more focused on raising the minimum wage and reducing social security payments for those of modest means.
Added to that is the reality that many who say they are supportive have not yet come out to demonstrate. While it is possible that this reservoir of supporters will not become activists, if they did the government would be hard put to cope.
Even on Saturday, the protesters managed to sustain a cat-and-mouse game with police, leaving the Arc de Triomphe when it was being sprayed with tear gas and water cannons, but popping up elsewhere in the city to spread havoc. If violence had broken out in multiple cities, it would is not clear how the government would handle it.
For now, however, Mr. Macron sees mainly disadvantages to trying to strike a deal with protesters.
“Emmanuel Macron regards the presidents of the republic who preceded him as having failed in their reform projects because they gave in to the pressure of the street,” Gérard Noiriel, a historian at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.
“He thinks that this movement, which effectively rallied fewer than 300,000 participants at its first protest and fewer than 80,000 today,” Mr. Noiriel said, “is going to weaken more and more and that the violence of the casseurs is going to discredit the Yellow Vests in public opinion.”
The problem, said Bernard Sananès, president of Elabe, a French polling organization, is that “there are two Frances.”
“One is a France that feels left behind and moving down” the socio-economic ladder, he said in an interview Dec. 1 on BFMTV, a French news channel.
A study released this past week by the Jean-Jaurès Institute, a public policy think tank, said: “In the past, these people could have given themselves some outings and entertainment; today those little ‘extras’ are out of reach.”
Multiple surveys of public opinion released in the past week suggest that 70 percent to 80 percent of French people sympathize with the Yellow Vests’ contention that President Emmanuel Macron and his government “talks about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”
The slogan refers to Mr. Macron’s focus on reducing climate change by promoting fuel efficiency and raising gas taxes in contrast to French working people who struggle to make it to the end of their month on their earnings.
The Yellow Vests draw their constituency from the majority of French who have watched their take-home pay increasingly fall behind their cost of living. Still, the French are considerably better off than those in Eastern Europe, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics arm.
The median disposable income for a person in a French household was 1,700 euros a month, about $1,923, in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, according to Insee, the French government’s statistics arm.
Disposable income reflects the amount left for workers to spend on their daily needs — housing, food, schooling, clothes — after paying income taxes and payroll taxes and making adjustments for any government subsidies for which they might be eligible.
Often the only way to rein in costs has been to move to the exurbs of major cities, where real estate prices are much lower, but where workers generally must rely on a car to get to work and for errands. Cars need gas and so any gas tax increase hits them. Taxes have also risen on tobacco and other goods.
For rural workers and those who live in distant small villages in the heart of France, a car is even more clearly a necessity.
Centrist politicians, even some who support Mr. Macron, are beginning to push for a more engaged response from the government.
“You can’t govern against the people,” said François Bayrou, the leader of the Moderate Democrats in Parliament, who are partners with Mr. Macron’s La Republique En Marche party in an interview on Europe 1.
Mr. Bayrou said he was not sure of the answer, but the government can’t keep “adding taxes on top of taxes.”