PARIS • The first "yellow vest" demonstration of the new year has reached a new level of violence as a government ministry building was attacked and the minister evacuated out the back door.
What started two months ago as a protest over petrol taxes has turned into a more general attack on the French government.
The minister, chief government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, told French television that yellow vest protesters and "men dressed in black" - the so-called casseurs, or "breakers", who have latched onto the movement - commandeered a construction vehicle and broke down the door of the Left Bank building. They then entered a courtyard and broke several windows, he said.
The rare intrusion on Saturday - the last such attack on a government building by protesters was in 1999 - took place on a day of protests throughout France that started peacefully but degenerated into violence. Some 50,000 took part in yellow vest demonstrations all over France, officials said, up from the previous weekend's 29,000. Over 3,000 turned out in Paris.
The numbers were down sharply from the protest's first weeks, but still represent a significant national turnout, especially as a majority of French continue to support the movement, despite repeated outbreaks of violence.
The yellow vest movement, which takes its name from the hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of economic distress, began as an outcry over rising fuel taxes and expanded into a broad campaign over money woes.
Near the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, police used tear gas and flash balls to block hundreds of protesters. A video posted on social media showed protesters fighting hand to hand with club-wielding police officers. Protesters dragged two officers to the ground and kicked them repeatedly, the video showed.
On the Champs-Elysees, which was closed to traffic for hours, protesters threw rocks at police and officers used water cannon to disperse the crowd.
Scooters and a car were burned along one of the capital's symbols of wealth and prestige, the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Police said 35 people were later arrested. Protesters and police also clashed on a pedestrian bridge linking the two banks of the Seine, a span heavily visited by tourists.
Underscoring the seriousness of Saturday's protests, President Emmanuel Macron reacted sharply on Twitter. "Once again, the republic was attacked with extreme violence - its guardians, its representatives, its symbols," he wrote.
Skirmishes also broke out between police and protesters in major cities in western France including Nantes and Caen, while in Bordeaux, five police officers were hurt and 11 people arrested. In Rennes, the capital of Brittany, protesters broke a door to city hall. In Toulouse, 2,000 people took to the streets, with some throwing stones at police.
But it was in Paris that the protests broke new ground with the attack on the ministry building along Rue de Grenelle, where a number of important government offices are located.
"It wasn't me who was attacked, it was the republic," a shaken-looking Mr Griveaux said, after he was evacuated from his offices.
The government's most familiar face on television, he has also been the most aggressive in adopting Mr Macron's harsh new line against the protest movement.
Last Friday, Mr Griveaux declared that the yellow vest movement had become "the province of agitators who want upheaval, and, at bottom, to overthrow the government". A watchword of the protest movement has been a demand that Mr Macron resign.
A yellow vest leader, Mr Eric Drouet, was arrested this past week on charges of organising an undeclared demonstration, setting off concerns of a backlash that would re-energise the demonstrations.
The weeks of unrest have pressured Mr Macron to act. Mid-last month, he scrapped a contentious fuel tax increase and promised extra cash for minimum wage earners and tax cuts for pensioners.