The protests, now in their eighth week, started as a peaceful backlash against planned carbon taxes but quickly spiralled into a wider rebellion against the government’s economic policies. Mr Le Drian told the French television channel CNews: “What we need is a Republican jolt. We need those with a voice – be they trade unions, associations, political leaders or journalists – to say: ‘Stop, that’s enough.’” He said: “There is real suffering among yellow vests, which stems from feelings of uncertainty about the future, from feelings of social exclusion… but this cannot in any way justify the forms of unbearable violence that we are dealing with today.
“A violence that goes against the interests of protesters”.
Anyone “attached to our democracy” should join the chorus of condemnation over worsening protest violence, Mr Le Drian stressed.
He added: “The law must be respected; the republican order must be respected. Because security is a prerequisite for the proper functioning of democracy. Violence is the law of the strongest, but today this violence has become intolerable,” he continued.
The yellow vest movement – named after the fluorescent safety jackets all French motorists must carry – erupted online in mid-November as a peaceful protest against rising fuel costs and a planned increase on a carbon tax on fossil fuels.
But the grassroots movement, which brings together people of all political stripes with a multitude of demands, quickly snowballed into a wider backlash against President Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business economic policies and perceived indifference.
Mr Le Drian also condemned a fundraising drive that brought in more than 100,000 euros (£90,000) for an ex-boxer filmed kicking and punching riot police officers during a yellow vest protest in Paris last week.
Christophe Dettinger, known in his boxing days as “The Gypsy from Massy,” turned himself into police on Monday after videos of him brutally assaulting two officers were widely shared on social media.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 7,000 people had donated a total of 117,000 euros (£105,000) on the Leetchi website to help pay Mr Dettinger’s legal costs.
He remains in police custody.
“I have seen – as you have – the unacceptable images of this boxer … who brutally wrestled police officers to the ground.
“But justice is there to uphold democracy and republican laws.”
Many protesters argue they are simply responding to police brutality, pointing to a video clip showing a senior police official beating up yellow vests in the southern city of Toulon last Saturday, and the repeated use of teargas and bullets to disperse crowds.
In an effort to defuse the social unrest, the Macron government announced last month a series of measures aimed at improving people’s spending power, which include a 100-euro (£90) monthly increase to the minimum wage, tax cuts for pensioners and tax-free overtime pay.
But the yellow vests want further concessions from the government.
One of their key demands is for the holding of a citizens’ initiative referendum, or RIC, that would allow citizens to propose and vote on new laws in what they claim would be a more “direct” form of democracy.
A 2008 constitutional amendment provides for holding a popular referendum if a proposal has the support of one-fifth of lawmakers and the backing of one-tenth of registered voters.
Mr Le Drian said: “(A RIC) is not a stupid idea. But it must be in line with the constitution and cannot be competitive with representative democracy.”
Two months of rolling protests have rattled Mr Macron’s government.
An Odoxa poll for BFM Business, Challenges and Aviva Assurances published on Thursday showed the young leader’s popularity rating had dropped 20 percentage points in one year, from 49 per cent in January 2018 to 29 per cent in January 2019.
The poll of 1,004 people, carried out online between January 2-3, also showed that 59 per cent of the French think 2019 will be marked by “economic difficulties”.
Forty-eight per cent of those polled said France would be “worse off” by the end of Mr Macron’s five-year mandate in 2022.