French police have arrested 54 people after officers had to evacuate the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris when a major fire broke out on a nearby street.
Commuters and holidaymakers were told to leave the building, which handles some 90 million passengers a year, after the blaze started soon after 6pm on Friday at the height of the evening rush hour.
Riot police had been called to the area after opponents of the regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo started demonstrating against a concert by the singer Fally Ipupa.
The 42-year-old performer is a supporter of Congolese president Felix Tshilombo and there is a large opposition movement against him based in Paris.
It is thought that bins and scooters were set alight during the demonstration and footage from the scene showed huge clouds of black smoke billowing over the busy station.
Paris police evacuated the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on Friday after fires were started in the area during a protest about a Congolese singer’s performance in the French capital
Video from the scene showed the blaze engulfing a row of parked bikes, which appeared to be under a bridge, and people watching on from above
A spokesman for the Paris Police Prefecture said there had been 30 arrests around the Gare de Lyon by 8pm, and 54 formal warnings issued against people taking part in an illegal demonstration.
Protests have been happening in the surrounding streets throughout the day ahead of Fally Ipupa’s performance at the Accor Hotels Arena in Bercy tonight.
Despite the destruction, police have said they now have the blaze under control. It is not thought that the fires will cause any disruption to Eurostar services from London, with the trains operating from Gare du Nord.
One video from the scene showed dozens of people pushing firefighters away and telling them to turn around as they tried to get to the blaze.
Paris Police shared the video, of what it said was ‘scandalous behaviour’, showing protesters wielding large roadworks barriers to stop firefighters from getting to the blaze.
Other clips shared online showed protesters turning firefighters away as they tried to help fight the blaze
Smoke was seen billowing over the station and surrounding streets during Friday evening
While other clips shared on social media showed the fire burning under a bridge and next to a row of parked scooters.
The SCNF train service operator said the underground section of the Gare de Lyon was evacuated as a precautionary measure. Train traffic was severely disrupted.
Outside the station, a dozen firetrucks were seen at work amid the smouldering wrecks of about 30 vehicles, mainly bikes.
Congolese expats regularly speak out against artists from home who perform in France or Belgium. They accuse them of being close to former DR Congo president Joseph Kabila and his successor Felix Tshisekedi.
‘Fally Ipupa is due to play a concert at the Accor Hotels Arena in Bercy tonight, but a call went out for opponents to start demonstrating,’ said a Paris police source.
‘Protestors were congregating around the station, and some started setting light to parked motorbikes. Fire spread and soon the station itself was on fire,’ the source added. ‘When fire engines arrived, fighting broke out.’
Emergency personnel gather at the scene of a fire next to the entrance of the Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris
Several charred vehicles laying on the side of the street are pictured after the fire on Friday evening
Dozens of people were seen on a walkway near the station (left) after the evacuation happened and smoke (right) filled the sky
A broken window is seen near the scene of a fire near Gare de Lyon station as emergency services try to break up protests
Riot police officers stand near the scene of the fire near Gare de Lyon railway station after the protests turned violent
Firefighters are seen putting out the fires with the charred remains of scooters seen laying on the ground
The source added: ‘The firefighters themselves were targeted, with rioters telling them to turn back and let buildings burn.’
As the main fire intensified, the famous Big Ben-style clock tower on the corner of the Gare de Lyon was threatened.
It was built for the Paris World Exposition of 1900, and is considered a classic example of the architecture of its time. The station also houses the Train Bleu restaurant, which is hugely popular with British visitors to the capital.
Outside the arena on Friday night, Ipupa backers and Congolese opposition faced off, exchanging insults.
‘With their music, they (the Congolese government) are bringing an entire people to their side while they slaughter and rape women and children,’ opponent Willy Dendebe claimed at the scene.
‘I have been here (in France) for 30 years because of them! Thirty years and we let them be here in France as if nothing has happened. So yes, we are angry!’
Lwangi Bienvenu, a fan who travelled from Belgium for the concert, observed the chaos from his hotel near the Gare de Lyon.
‘It’s a shame. He’s Congolese, we should all be behind him,’ Bienvenu said of the singer. ‘People will talk about the bad inside us. They put people in danger and they will now surely cancel the concert.’
Disturbances have been seen before and in 2017 concert by Ipupa was cancelled by police citing risks for ‘serious disturbances to the public order’.
At least two fires appear to have been started near the station, causing the smoke to billow in the street
Barriers were thrown into the street (left) during the protests and thick smoke was seen rising from the fire (right and left) on Friday afternoon
Buildings were covered with the smoke as people watched the fires from what appeared to be a bridge in the city