Notre-Dame toxic fallout lawsuit turns heat on Paris authorities

FILE PHOTO: A view shows the damaged roof of Notre-Dame de Paris during restoration work, three months after a fire that devastated the cathedral in Paris, France, July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – An environmental protection group has filed a suit alleging lives were deliberately endangered after the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, saying authorities failed to protect people from lead that spewed into the area.

The April 15 inferno melted hundreds of tonnes of lead in the cathedral’s spire and roof. Unusually high levels of lead were later detected in the air and nearby buildings, including primary schools.

Campaign group Robin des Bois filed a lawsuit dated July 26 against unknown persons, alleging that authorities in Paris were aware the fire had dispersed large quantities of lead into the air and that lead is toxic.

Authorities failed to provide adequate warnings of potential lead poisoning to local residents, tourists and workers on the site before and after the blaze, the suit says.

The authorities’ actions meant there was exposure to toxic fallout and that “lives were deliberately endangered”, Robin des Bois said in its complaint, filed with the Paris prosecutor.

Paris City Hall declined to comment.

The prosecutor will next determine whether the complaint merits deeper investigation.

Health officials have said people living and working in the vicinity of the cathedral were kept informed of risks and safety measures. Nearby residents were advised to wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth.

In June, after unusually high lead levels were detected in a child, pregnant women and young children were invited to get tested for lead levels in their blood.

More than three months after the fire, the Paris prefect suspended restoration work on the cathedral on July 25 until more robust decontamination measures have been put in place. The same day, the mayor’s office temporarily closed a nursery and primary school that were hosting a holiday club for a “deep clean” after high lead levels were detected.

The cathedral’s spire and roof, which collapsed in the fire, contained more than 450 tonnes of lead.

(Reporting by Emilie Delwarde; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Notre Dame fire may have been caused by power fault or cigarette: prosecutors

The Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral is pictured after the first mass since the devastating fire in April, in Paris, France, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

PARIS (Reuters) – An electrical fault or a burning cigarette may have been responsible for the fire that gutted Notre-Dame Cathedral, French authorities investigating the cause of April’s blaze said on Wednesday.

Paris prosecutors said that, while they were investigating the possibility of negligence, they currently had no reason to believe the fire was started deliberately.

It ripped through the medieval cathedral on April 15, destroying the roof, toppling the spire and almost bringing down the main bell towers and outer walls before firefighters brought it under control.

“If certain failings, which may explain the scale of the fire, have been brought to light, the investigations carried out to this date have not yet been able to determine the causes of the fire,” said a statement from Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

“For now, there are no indications of a criminal origin,” he added. However, nothing had been ruled out, with an electrical fault and a cigarette that was not properly extinguished two of several possible causes being investigated, he said.

President Emmanuel Macron has set a target of five years for restoring Notre-Dame, which dates back to the 12th century and is one of Europe’s most iconic landmarks.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Geert de Clercq and John Stonestreet)

French interior minister warns of yellow-vest riots on Saturday

FILE PHOTO: Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration during the Act XXI (the 21st consecutive national protest on Saturday) of the yellow vests movement at the financial district of La Defense near Paris, France, April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – The French interior minister warned on Friday that violence could flare up on the 23rd Saturday of yellow-vest protests, as authorities banned marches around the fire-gutted Notre-Dame cathedral.

The warning comes after weeks of relative calm, with the marches attracting declining numbers as yellow-vest protesters waited for President Emmanuel Macron’s expected response to their various demands which include lower taxes and more government services.

Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said domestic intelligence services had informed him of a potential return of rioters intent on wreaking havoc in Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier and Bordeaux, in a repeat of violent protests on March 16.

That day, hooded gangs ransacked stores on Paris’s famed Champs-Elysees avenue, set fire to a bank and forced Macron to cut short a ski trip in the Pyrenees.

“The rioters will be back tomorrow,” Castaner told a press conference. “Their proclaimed aim: a repeat of March 16,” he said. “The rioters have visibly not been moved by what happened at Notre-Dame.”

Castaner said that planned marches that would have come near the medieval church on the central island on the Seine river had been banned, while one march from Saint-Denis, north of Paris, to Jussieu university on the Left Bank, had been authorized.

The catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral on Monday, one of France’s best-loved monuments, prompted an outpouring of national sorrow and a rush by rich families and corporations to pledge around 1 billion euro ($1.12 billion)for its reconstruction.

That has angered some yellow-vest protesters, who have expressed disgust at the fact their five-month-old movement, which started as an anti-fuel tax protest last year, has not received the same generous donations by France’s elite.

“I’m sorry, and with all due respect to our heritage, but I am just taken aback by these astronomic amounts!” Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the yellow vests’ most recognizable public faces, said on her Facebook page.

“After five months on the streets, this is totally at odds with what we have seen,” she said.

The yellow vest movement poses the biggest challenge so far to Macron’s authority two years into his presidency.

The French leader was due to unveil policies to quell the grassroot movement on Monday, before the blaze at Notre-Dame forced him to cancel the speech. He has yet to set a new date for the announcements.

(Reporting by Danielle Rouquié, writing by Michel Rose; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Man caught walking into New York cathedral with full gasoline cans, lighters: police

FILE PHOTO: People attend Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, December 25, 2013. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

(Reuters) – A 37-year-old man was arrested on Wednesday night after walking into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with two full gasoline cans, lighter fluid, and lighters, police said.

The incident occurred two days after a massive fire severely damaged the eight-century-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, causing global shock and sorrow. The blaze was most likely the result of an accident though a major investigation is underway.

In New York, the man entered the Roman Catholic cathedral in midtown Manhattan just before 8 p.m. (0000 GMT) and was confronted by a security guard, according to a New York City Police Department (NYPD) official.

As the man turned to leave, gasoline spilled onto the floor and the guard alerted police officers stationed outside.

Officers caught up with the man and he was taken into custody after questioning, said John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the NYPD.

“An individual walking into an iconic location like St. Patrick’s Cathedral carrying over four gallons of gasoline, two bottles of lighter fluid and lighters, is something we would have grave concern over,” Miller told reporters.

Asked if terrorism was a possible motive in the incident, Miller said it was “too early to say that”. But, alluding to worldwide publicity about the Notre Dame fire, he added: “This is an indicator of something that would be very suspicious.”

Three predominantly African-American churches in Louisiana burned down between March 26 and April 4. A man was arrested and charged with arson and hate crimes.

The man told police he was taking a short cut through the cathedral to get to Madison Avenue from 5th Avenue to return to his van which had run out of gasoline, Miller said.

When police checked the vehicle they found it was not out of fuel, at which point the man was arrested, he said. “He is known to police and we are looking into his background. We don’t know what his mindset was, what his motive was.”

The man, who police declined to identify because he has not been charged, was still in custody early Thursday.

The New York Daily News and other publications, citing unnamed police sources, identified the man as a philosophy professor and a New Jersey resident.

A police spokesman said detectives would discuss the case with the Manhattan district attorney’s office on Thursday morning to decide on possible charges.

St. Patrick’s, a neo-gothic church across from the Rockefeller Center, has stood in the heart of Manhattan since 1879 and is considered one of the most important symbols of the Catholic Church in the United States.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay in New Mexico, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

French President Macron hopes to rebuild Notre-Dame in five years

A view of the damaged roof and debris inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, during the visit of French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (not pictured) in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

By Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Tuesday that France would rebuild the fire-devastated Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, saying he hoped the work would be done in five years and the French people would pull together to repair their national symbol.

A view of the debris inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, during the visit of French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (not pictured) in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

Macron devoted a brief prime-time televised address to Monday’s catastrophic blaze in the heart of the capital, again postponing planned remarks on his response to months of anti-government protests.

“We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it,” Macron said.

“It is up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project.”

“This is not a time for politics,” added Macron, who had canceled a speech planned on Monday evening on the response to the “yellow vest” protests.

He visited the site of the fire late on Monday and promised then to rebuild the cathedral, parts of which date to the 12th century.

French firefighters are seen in the towers inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

French firefighters are seen in the towers inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

The cathedral spire was destroyed and its roof gutted but the bell towers were still standing and many valuable artworks were saved after more than 400 firemen worked to contain the blaze, finally quelling it 14 hours after it began.

As the city and the country grieved for a potent national symbol, billionaires, companies and local authorities were quick to offer donations.

Some 24 hours after the fire started, more than 750 million euros ($845 million) had been pledged, including 500 million from the three billionaire families that own France’s giant luxury goods empires: Kering, LVMH and L’Oreal.

Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation, officials said.

 

The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s oak roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s timber-framed supports. Police began questioning the workers involved, the prosecutor’s office said.

One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt, with the fire starting at around 6:30 p.m. after the building was closed to the public for the evening.

Firefighters examined the facade, with its spectacular 10-metre filigreed stained-glass rose window still intact. They could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown.

Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.

“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the flames spread.

“CATHEDRAL OF THE PEOPLE”

Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world.

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: “Notre-Dame will always remain – and we have seen this in these hours – a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was “utterly heartbroken”. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered German help to rebuild a part of “our common European heritage”.

Considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame is visited by more than 13 million people a year. It sits on an island in the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank hangouts of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

“Notre-Dame de Paris is the cathedral of the people, of the people of Paris, of the French people, of the people of the world. It is part of those references of our history, of what we have in common, of what we share,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

It was at Notre-Dame that Henry VI of England was crowned “King of France” in 1431, that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, and Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909. Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned there.

HUMAN CHAIN

The cathedral is owned by the state and has been at the centre of a dispute between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.

It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine.

Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace of the fire’s spread had been stunning.

“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.

The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation.

“All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures,” Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres.

Many relics and artworks were saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France.

Gold, silver and gem-inlaid chalices, candelabras and many other artefacts survived the blaze.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White, Emmanuel Jarry, Luke Baker and John Irish in Paris; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough and Frances Kerry; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Peter Graff and Alison Williams)

No sign of arson in Notre-Dame blaze as nation grieves for symbol

By Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – The fire that tore through Notre-Dame cathedral was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday after firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight and the nation grieved for the destruction of one of its symbols.

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to extinguish the fire some 14 hours after it began.

Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation. One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt in the blaze which began after the building was closed to the public for the evening.

Firefighters work at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Firefighters work at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast flying buttresses, still stood firm, but the insides and the upper structure were eviscerated by the blaze.

Firefighters examined the gothic facade and could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown.

Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its stone walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.

The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s timbered roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s wooden frame.

The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into “involuntary destruction by fire”. Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor’s office said.

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Hundreds of stunned onlookers had lined the banks of the Seine river late into the night as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmony as they stood in vigil.

“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything. It is a sign of hope,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the fire spread.

It was at Notre-Dame that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909 and former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned.

Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world.

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: “Notre-Dame will always remain – and we have seen this in these hours – a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was “utterly heartbroken”.

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

VOW TO REBUILD

President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild Notre-Dame, considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, visited by more than 13 million people a year.

Notre-Dame is owned by the state. It has been at the center of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance badly needed restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.

It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The rival billionaire owners of France’s two biggest luxury fashion empires, Francois-Henri Pinault of Kering and Bernard Arnault of LVMH, pledged 100 million euros and 200 million euros to the restoration respectively. Oil company Total pledged 100 million. The city of Paris said it would provide 50 million.

Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace at which the fire spread through the cathedral had been stunning.

“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.

HUMAN CHAIN

The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation.

“All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures,” Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres.

Officials breathed a sigh of relief that many relics and artworks had been saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen, and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, the 13th-century king of France.

“Notre-Dame was our sister, it is so sad, we are all mourning,” said Parisian Olivier Lebib. “I have lived with her for 40 years. Thank God that the stone structure has withstood the fire.”

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White, Emmanuel Jarry and Luke Baker in Paris; Additional reporting by Philip Pullela; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is engulfed by fire

Sparks fill the air as Paris Fire brigade members spray water to extinguish flames as the Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris, France, April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Julie Carriat

PARIS (Reuters) – A massive fire consumed Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday, destroying the roof of the historic Paris landmark in a roaring blaze as firefighters battled to prevent one of the main bell towers from collapsing.

Flames that began in the early evening burst rapidly through the roof of the centuries-old cathedral and engulfed the spire, which toppled, quickly followed by the entire roof.

Distraught Parisians and stunned tourists gazed in disbelief as the inferno raged. Thousands of onlookers lined bridges over the River Seine and along its embankments, held at a distance by a police cordon.

“We’re not certain yet that we’ll be able to stop the fire from spreading to the northern belfry,” a firefighting official told reporters.

World leaders expressed shock and sent condolences to the French people. President Emmanuel Macron said the whole nation was distressed. “Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of all of us burn,” he tweeted.

A huge plume of smoke wafted across the city and ash fell over a large area. People watching gasped as the spire folded over onto itself and fell into the inferno.

At around 1930 GMT, nearly three hours after the fire started, a Fire Department spokesman said the next 90 minutes would be crucial in seeing if the blaze could be contained.

“Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building,” said witness Jacek Poltorak, watching the fire from a fifth-floor balcony two blocks from the southern facade of the cathedral, one of France’s most visited sites.

Firefighters tried to contain the blaze with water hoses and cleared the area around Notre-Dame, which sits on an island in the River Seine and marks the very center of Paris. Witnesses said the whole island, the Ile de la Cite, was being evacuated.

Nobody was injured, junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said at the scene, adding: “It’s too early to determine the causes of the fire.”

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had launched an inquiry into the fire. Several police sources said that they were working on the assumption for now that the fire was accidental.

“Everything is collapsing,” a police officer near the scene said as the cathedral continued to burn.

Macron, who cancelled an address to the nation that he had been due to give on Monday evening, went to the scene of the blaze and talked to officials trying to contain it.

The French Civil Security service, possibly responding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that firefighters “act quickly” and employ flying water tankers, said that was not an option as it might destroy the entire building.

“Helicopter or plane, the weight of the water and the intensity of dropping it at low altitude could weaken the structure of Notre-Dame and cause collateral damage to surrounding buildings,” it tweeted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the cathedral a “symbol of France and our European culture”. British Prime Minister Theresa May said her thoughts were with the French people and emergency services fighting the “terrible blaze”.

The Vatican said the fire at the “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world” had caused shock and sadness and said it was praying for the firefighters.

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

SYMBOL OF PARIS

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said at the scene that some of many artworks that were in the cathedral had been taken out and were being put in safe storage.

The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, features in Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts millions of tourists every year.

It is a focal point for French Roman Catholics who like Christians around the world are celebrating Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The archbishop of Paris called on all priests in Paris to ring church bells as a gesture of solidarity for Notre-Dame.

“I have a lot of friends who live abroad and every time they come I tell them to go to Notre-Dame,” said witness Samantha Silva, with tears in her eyes.

“I’ve visited it so many times, but it will never be the same. It’s a real symbol of Paris.”

The cathedral was in the midst of renovations, with some sections under scaffolding, and bronze statues were removed last week for works.

Built over a century starting in 1163, Notre-Dame is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture.

It is renowned for its rib vaulting, flying buttresses and stunning stained glass windows, as well as its many carved stone gargoyles.

Its 100-metre-long (330-foot) roof, of which a large section was consumed in the first hour of the blaze, was one of the oldest such structures in Paris, according to the cathedral’s website.

A center of Roman Catholic faith, over the centuries Notre-Dame has also been a target of political upheaval.

It was ransacked by rioting Protestant Huguenots in the 16th century, pillaged again during the French Revolution of the 1790s and left in a state of semi-neglect. Hugo’s 1831 work led to revived interest in the cathedral and a major “partly botched” restoration that began in 1844.

The wood-and-lead spire was built during that restoration, according to the cathedral’s website.

“Notre-Dame belonged to all humanity. What a tragic spectacle,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union’s executive Commission.

“What horror. I share the French nation’s sadness.”

(Reporting by Sybille de la Hamaide and Julie Carriat; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Simon Carraud, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Michel Rose, Emmanuel Jarry, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Marine Pennetier, Sarah White, Tim Hepher, Laurence Frost in Paris, Kylie MacLellan in London, Paul Carrel in Berlin, Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Frances Kerry)

On Paris’ Champs Elysees, shattered glass and smoking ruins

A man stand in front of a damaged shop on the Champs Elysees avenue during a demonstration by the "yellow vests" movement in Paris, France, March 16, 2019. Picture taken March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Luke Baker

PARIS (Reuters) – It is meant to be one of the world’s most elegant streets: more than a kilometer of boutiques, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and fashion outlets vying for tourists’ attention. But on Monday, the Champs Elysees looked more like a construction site.

On their 18th Saturday of protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his policies, France’s Gilets Jaunes (‘yellow vest’) movement targeted the tree-lined avenue that runs from the Arc de Triomphe, smashing banks, ransacking restaurants, burning newspaper kiosks and looting luxury stores.

From GAP to leather goods maker Longchamp, from Levis to high-end bakery Laduree, a hard core of violent protesters threw cobble stones through pane-glass windows, scrawled graffiti on walls, set fire to half a dozen newspaper stands and torched famed restaurant Le Fouquet’s in an orgy of destruction.

Whether the Disney store or Samsung, Tissot, Zara or Dior, few major retailers were left untouched by the rampage, which also took in a cinema, Hugo Boss, a Renault branded cafe, an Iran Air office and banks from Societe Generale to HSBC.

Among those that did emerge unscathed, perhaps thanks to heavy boarding-up after previous bouts of vandalism, were Apple’s flagship store, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton.

Carpenters were cutting wood to board up shattered windows on Monday morning, and glass panes were being replaced in some bus-stops and storefronts, but stretches of the wide avenue remained a mess, with the smell of charred paper and metal hanging over the incinerated carcasses of newspaper kiosks.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” said Michael Bilaniuk, a tourist from Ontario, Canada who said he had come straight to the Champs Elysees to check out the scene after arriving in France, aware that the Gilets Jaunes had been on the rampage.

“It’s almost part of the tourist attraction — we’ve heard and seen so much about the protests, you kind of want to come and see for yourself what’s happened. It’s interesting.”

Nearby, protesters’ slogans were written across a storefront and the elegant entranceway to a gallery of shops.

“They have millions, we are the millions” read one. Another threatened: “We are a legion, you are pawns, be careful.”

“PROTEST TOO FAR”

Since the ‘yellow vest’ movement began in November, originally as a protest against fuel taxes before morphing into a general denunciation of Macron’s politics, the government has struggled to neutralize the threat.

While there has been a protest every Saturday in Paris and other cities since November, not all of them have been as violent and destructive as Saturday’s, which has made it hard for businesses to predict how to prepare.

While some retailers began boarding up their shops after rioting in early December, in recent weeks the numbers joining the protests declined sharply and many store owners may have thought it was safe to operate normally again.

France’s overall retail sales were affected at the end of 2018 because of nationwide disruption in the run-up to Christmas, and after Saturday’s vandalism, Paris’ Chamber of Commerce called for action from the government.

“Employers and their staff have been traumatized by the intensity and repetition of the violence,” the chamber said in a statement on Monday, pointing out that more than 90 businesses had been affected.

“Last Saturday’s demonstrations have taken things too far,” it said, demanding that the government take “firm measures that will allow retailers to go about their business normally”.

(Writing by Luke Baker, Editing by William Maclean)

Enough! Thousands decry anti-Semitism in France after spike in attacks

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Picture taken with a fish-eye lens. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Vincent Kessel and Noemie Olive

STRASBOURG/PARIS, France (Reuters) – Thousands of people rallied across France after a surge of anti-Semitic attacks in recent weeks that culminated on Tuesday with vandals daubing swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans on dozens of graves in a Jewish cemetery.

Political leaders from all parties, including former Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, gathered in Paris filling the Place de la Republique, a symbol of the nation, to decry anti-Semitic acts with one common slogan: “Enough!”

People also lined the streets of cities from Lille in the north to Toulouse and Marseille in the south.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: "No to the trivialisation of hatred". REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. Placard reads: “No to the trivialization of hatred”. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

President Emmanuel Macron paid respects at one of the 96 desecrated graves in the village of Quatzenheim, near the eastern city of Strasbourg.

“Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic and will be punished… We’ll take action, we’ll apply the law and we’ll punish them,” he said, walking through a gate scarred with a swastika as he entered the graveyard.

Macron later visited the national Holocaust memorial in Paris with the heads of the Senate and National Assembly.

France is home to the biggest Jewish community in Europe — around 550,000 — a population that has grown by about half since World War Two, but anti-Semitic attacks remain common. Government statistics released last week showed there were more than 500 anti-Semitic attacks in the country last year, a 74 percent increase from 2017.

“Some people are provoking the authority of the state. It needs to be dealt with now and extremely firmly,” Sarkozy told reporters. “It’s a real question of authority. Violence is spreading and it needs to stop now.”

Among incidents in recent days, “yellow vest” protesters were filmed hurling abuse on Saturday at Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known Jewish writer and son of a Holocaust survivor.

Artwork on two Paris post boxes showing the image of Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and former magistrate, was defaced with swastikas, while a bagel shop was sprayed with the word “Juden”, German for Jews, in yellow letters. A tree in a Paris suburb in memory of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2006, was cut in two.

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a national gathering to protest antisemitism and the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The series of attacks has alarmed politicians and prompted calls for action against what some commentators describe as a new form of anti-Semitism among the far-left and Islamist preachers.

“I call on all French and European leaders to take a strong stand against anti-Semitism,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message recorded in Hebrew. “It is an epidemic that endangers everyone, not just us.”

A rabbi and three children were killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 by an Islamist gunman, and in 2015 four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris were among 17 people killed by Islamist militants.

(Additional reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Mayaan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Luke Baker and John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones and Frances Kerry)

Putin tells Trump that Moscow is open for dialogue

FILE PHOTO - Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with officials and representatives of Russian business community at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 26, 2018. Alexander Nemenov/Pool via REUTERS

By Vladimir Soldatkin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in a New Year letter on Sunday that Moscow was ready for dialogue on a “wide-ranging agenda”, the Kremlin said following a series of failed attempts to hold a new summit.

At the end of November, Trump abruptly canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Argentina, citing tensions about Russian forces opening fire on Ukrainian navy boats and then seizing them.

Trump and Putin also failed to hold a full-fledged meeting in Paris on the sidelines of the centenary commemoration of the Armistice. The two leaders held their one and only summit in Helsinki in July.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that the (Russia – United States) relations are the most important factor for providing strategic stability and international security,” a Kremlin statement said.

“He confirmed that Russia is open for dialogue with the USA on the most wide-ranging agenda.”

Moscow has said one of the key issues it wanted to discuss with the United States is Washington’s plans to withdraw from a Cold War era nuclear arms pact.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying that now it was up to the United States whether to hold a new meeting in 2019.

“The issue should be addressed to Washington. Both our president and his representatives have said that we are ready for the talks when Washington is ready for it,” TASS news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in televised remarks.

In a separate letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Putin pledged a continuation of aid to the Syrian government and people in the “fight against terrorism, in defense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Putin also sent New Year greetings to other world leaders including prime ministers Theresa May of Britain and Shinzo Abe of Japan, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Putin wished “well-being and prosperity to the British people”, the Kremlin said.

Russia’s embassy in London said on Friday Moscow and London had agreed to return some staff to their respective embassies after they expelled dozens of diplomats early this year.

Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over accusations the Kremlin was behind a nerve toxin attack in March on former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury.

Russia, which denies any involvement in the poisoning, sent home the same number of British embassy workers in retaliation.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin, Editing by William Maclean and David Stamp)