Those of us who observed France’s gilets jaunes (yellow vests) on their 13th Saturday in a row of Paris street demonstrations last weekend witnessed incidents that were as surreal as they were horrific. 

One of the protesters lost four fingers in an explosion caused by police munitions outside France’s National Assembly. It happened as armed officers battled to prevent a full-blown assault on the country’s parliament. 

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Later on, an anti-terrorist patrol vehicle was set alight at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. As orange flames leapt skywards, vast clouds of thick black smoke swirled around a structure normally viewed as an indestructible symbol of the city of love and light. Is Paris burning? – like the title of the classic war film featuring Kirk Douglas, Alain Delon and Orson Welles – became a pertinent question, but this was by no means the most visually shocking scene of the day. 

That came in Lyon, where rival gangs of gilets jaunes turned the southeastern city into their own battleground. Bizarre footage posted on social media showed far-right patriots squaring up to anti-capitalist leftists. They were all meant to be on the same side, challenging President Emmanuel Macron and the system of government he represents, but instead they fought one another. 

How they managed to differentiate between friend and foe while all wearing the high visibility motoring jackets that identify a gilet jaune is anyone’s guess, but this combat said more about their often scatterbrained campaign than anything else. It is now riven with aggressive rivalries yet remains the most successful protest movement in France’s recent history.

You only have to go back to three months to see how far they have come. It was on 17 November that almost 300,000 gilets jaunes rallied across the country, calling for lower fuel prices. There were no official leaders – just thousands communicating through social media. Beyond making Saturday demonstration day, some spent the week blockading roundabouts, oil refineries and motorway service stations.

The idea was peaceful protest, but things soon turned very nasty indeed. Rioting was accompanied by related crimes, including acts of arson against property owned by perceived enemies, yet President Macron still yielded to the mob. In a U-turn that displayed astonishing weakness, he scrapped flagship policy commitments including green taxes on petrol and diesel. 

French heads of state are notorious for giving in to the street, but Macron’s generosity went further than most. His other magnanimous measures ranged from increasing the minimum wage by 7 per cent, to inviting gilets jaunes representatives to visit the institutions of the Fifth Republic that many of them despise. Conciliation was needed, Macron argued, and there was every reason to bring his most agitated critics into his pampered fold. 

All of this has now backfired spectacularly. Rather than cooperation, there is now institutionalised mayhem. “Macron Radicalised Me” was a slogan written on the back of many bright jackets on show on Saturday. 

That same day Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly and a close Macron ally, made a complaint to prosecutors about unknown stalkers setting fire to his constituency home in Brittany. This made the sight of gangs of hooded youths – most of them middle-class students – smashing in the reinforced glass frontages of dozens of Paris banks and estate agencies, while torching top marque cars, even more chilling.

As with those targeting Ferrand, many of the thugs in the capital remained mysteriously unchallenged. All of the ones I saw retained an air of white riot privilege, acting as if their status as “indigenous” French citizens gave them the right to destroy. Arrests were minimal. Those from dark-skinned immigrant backgrounds – and they have been notable by their absence throughout – would not last five minutes if they behaved in a similar fashion in broad daylight. 

Even when the gilets jaunes started smashing the bulletproof glass designed to protect the Eiffel Tower from terrorist attack, the police simply poured chemical weapons in their general direction. That much of the highly concentrated gas ended up causing immense distress to tourists, including children, mattered little. It never does. The reliance on such noxious substances is far more likely to provoke violence than to stop it. 

Yes, the police have maimed protesterstearing off limbs and eyes with non-lethal grenades and rubber bullets. Officers have battered men and women with their truncheons, but their overall efforts to prevent disorder remain extremely tame. The gilets jaunes death toll is now past 10, and the vast majority of the tragedies have been caused by road traffic accidents.

Looking at the rows of low-paid anti-riot officers on Saturday, I got the distinct impression that many shared a strong bond with the equally ferocious, fair-skinned and resentful gilets jaunes they were meant to be controlling. 

The truth is that, despite its tawdriness, the gilets jaunes brand is generally respected. It is a new phenomenon in western Europe – a catch-all movement for expressing dissent that is as divided as it is effective. Last Saturday, red flags, including old Soviet Union ones and Che Guevara banners, abounded, as did ones showing an affinity between France and Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuela. Others displayed monarchical standards and signs supporting Frexit and an end to all immigration.

The emphasis at the moment is on the extremes – far-right neo-Nazis on one end and Trotskyite Marxists at the other – but there are plenty of others somewhere in between. Some gilets jaunes are standing in European parliament elections in May, while calling for Brexit-style referendums on every significant issueOthers are attending the marathon debates that Macron has organised to try and placate them. Many more are calling for the notoriously corrupt, self-serving members of the Paris establishment to be forcibly removed from their cushy jobs – by muscular revolution if necessary. 

French riot graffiti is traditionally articulate and wise, and on Saturday a quotation by the late Catholic cleric Henri Groues, better known as Abbe Pierre, caught the eye. Scrawled on a wall close to the National Assembly, it read: “Those who have everything…They are for peace!”

The gilets jaunes are not for peaceThey offer instant recognition and a high media profile for pretty much anyone with a serious grievance against the status quo. Macron invigorated the movement, and must now concede that it is still as ambitious as it is brutally disunited.