France trial opens over 2018 Arc de Triomphe protest riot

Yellow vest protesters stormed the Arc de Triomphe during a fiery protest on December 1, 2018
Yellow vest protesters stormed the Arc de Triomphe during a fiery protest on December 1, 2018 Abdulmonam EASSA AFP/File
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Paris (AFP)

Nine people went on trial Monday accused of taking part in one of the most violent episodes of the anti-government "yellow vest" protests that rocked France two years ago.

Prosecutors admit, however, that the suspects are neither the instigators nor the main culprits of the vandalism and looting around the Arc de Triomphe monument in Paris, when scenes of destruction and fierce clashes with police made global headlines.

Dozens of cars were set on fire and businesses were trashed all along the famed Champs-Elysees avenue on December 1, 2018, the third Saturday of mass demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron.

He was accused of ignoring the plight of struggling French families and after months of protests he abandoned a planned fuel tax hike and raised spending on the lowest earners.

The protesters had already skirmished with security forces at earlier rallies, but police were unprepared for the rioting that engulfed the capital just a few weeks before Christmas.

Despite firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets, the officers were forced to abandon their positions around the Arc de Triomphe, which honours France's war dead.

Protesters snuffed out the eternal flame over the tomb of an unknown World War I soldier and spray-painted the stone walls with graffiti including "the yellow vests will triumph".

Others forced their way into the arch, ransacking the gift shop and damaging scores of artworks, causing damage that cost 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) to repair.

- 'Small fish' -

The seven men and two women on trial on Monday, most of whom have no criminal records, face charges of destruction and theft that carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

For procedural reasons, a tenth suspect who was also to face the judge will be tried at a later date.

The trial opened with presentations of videos and photos showing the extent of the damage, including smashed statues and shattered display cases.

"You see that things are getting out of control, and you don't say to yourself 'this has gone too far, I'm leaving'?" asked the judge, Sonia Lumbroso.

Lawyers for the accused say they are unfairly taking the blame because the main offenders got away before police were able to clear the monument.

"This is a trial for small fish, because the big fish aren't here," said Veronique Massi, a lawyer for one of the suspects, who says he was only seeking refuge as the police charged.

"They wanted to be at the heart of the action, they didn't think it was going to end like that," she said.

But for Jean-Philippe Morel, a lawyer for the HAPPAH heritage defence association, a claimant in the case, there is sufficient evidence to prove that the suspects took part in the violence.

"We have those responsible," he said, "even if they aren't the main ones."

The trial is scheduled to last until Friday.

Seven other people, including a minor, will be tried later on charges of unlawfully entering a historic monument.