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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Anger over pensions law fuels May Day protests in France

Protesters gathered at Place de la Nation in Paris on Monday during May Day demonstrations intensified by anger over a pensions overhaul.

By Constant Méheut

French workers marched across the country Monday, as the annual May Day demonstrations in France coincided with smoldering anger over an unpopular pension overhaul that President Emmanuel Macron pushed through last month.

From Le Havre in the north to Marseille in the south, some 800,000 people took to the streets, according to French authorities, with violent clashes in some places. Unions gave a much higher figure, 2.3 million.

The protest culminated in the afternoon with an enormous march in Paris against the government’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62, an effort that led to the biggest political threat in Macron’s second term.

Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest union in the country, told reporters at the march in Paris that the protests were a way to continue the fight against the pension overhaul and “to say no again to retirement at 64.”

Berger’s defiance reflected a broader truth confronting Macron: Although he was able to push through the pension overhaul, he did so only by turning to a constitutional measure that allowed him to sidestep a full vote in parliament, and the protests served as a stark reminder of the residual fury.

“All those who were against the overhaul continue to vent their anger — it’s good, necessary and legitimate,” said Angelina Meslem, 45, who marched in Paris with a sign criticizing Macron’s use of Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to ram through the bill.

Still, the pension overhaul was approved by the country’s Constitutional Council and officially signed into law, so while Macron will not find the issue easy to leave behind there is little chance the protesters will be able to persuade him to reverse his decision.

“Macron is trying to move forward no matter what, but people are standing still,” said Antoine Bristielle, the head of the polling department at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès research institute. “About 60% of the population say they don’t want to move on from the pension reform.”

Macron’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement was based on his conviction that the pension system was unsustainable and that changing the program, with its generous benefits, was essential to France’s economic health.

In doing so, he struck a nerve in a society that considers retirement an important stage of one’s life, while failing to convince large numbers of French people of the potential benefits of the change for the country’s economic development.

France has been convulsed for months by regular strikes and protests that have drawn millions into the streets. Monday marked the 13th day of nationwide protests since January, and the first time in more than a decade that the country’s labor unions, usually divided, formed a united front for the traditional May Day demonstrations.

“The mobilization will not stop until this reform is withdrawn,” Sophie Binet, the head of the General Confederation of Labor, France’s second-largest labor union, told reporters Monday. “We see that the anger has never been so strong in the country.”

But Macron has insisted that he would not yield on the pension changes, which will gradually come into force starting in September, leaving his opponents with few options.

An opposition group has submitted a bill in the lower house of parliament that would return the legal age of retirement to 62, but it remains unclear whether it will garner a majority of the vote from the fractured opposition.

Macron’s opponents are also clinging to a request they have filed with the Constitutional Council that would allow a referendum on the issue. The council is expected to rule on the request’s validity Wednesday, but it already rejected a similar request last month.

Even if it were to rule in favor this time, the procedure would be long and complex — involving the collection of the signatures of at least 10% of voters, or roughly 4.8 million people, over nine months — and would not automatically lead to a referendum.

The marches on the French equivalent of Labor Day will provide an indication of what lies ahead for the protest movement. They might give it a new impetus or symbolically mark its last stand.

“It’s not a last stand,” Berger told reporters, adding that his union would respond favorably if the government invited it to talk, as was suggested by the labor minister Monday morning.

The march in Paris had all of the hallmarks of a typical May Day demonstration in France. Participants swayed to hit music blasted from loudspeakers; left-wing activists handed out leaflets calling for an end to capitalism.

The march started from the central Place de la République, where a giant bronze statue of Marianne, the woman who embodies the French Republic, had been adorned with a large yellow vest that read “Macron, resign.”

It ended on the eastern Place de la Nation, where another Marianne statue was enveloped in clouds of tear gas fired by police while loud bangs from firecrackers rang out in the background.

Violent clashes between black-clad protesters and armor-clad police officers erupted on the plaza, and part of a building caught fire, sending large billows of dark smoke into the sky. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said that more than 100 police officers had been injured, including one seriously injured by a Molotov cocktail, and that nearly 300 protesters had been arrested.

Monday’s protests maintained some degree of pressure on the French government, which is trying to figure out a path forward after the heated debate on a divisive issue.

In a televised address to the nation last month, Macron gave himself 100 days to deliver a handful of crucial overhauls to improve the working conditions and salaries of the French, as well as to tackle illegal immigration.

But last week, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced at a news conference that the immigration bill Macron was counting on would be pushed back to the fall because “there is no majority to vote such a text.”

And two days later, the rating agency Fitch downgraded France’s credit rating, citing concerns that the political upheaval over the pension law could limit its ability to make changes and bolster its public finances in the future.

That came as a blow to Macron, who had suggested that the pension overhaul was intended, at least in part, to reassure financial markets about France’s economic health.

Bristielle said the French government hoped the protest movement would die down in the coming weeks. But he added that the monthslong battle had produced “a kind of widespread resentment against Emmanuel Macron and the political institutions” that would be fertile ground for any future protest movement.

Gilles Boisaubert, 67, who was marching in Paris, said Macron’s ramming through of the pension overhaul had “set a very unfortunate precedent” that would have lasting consequences. “It’s more serious than just a pension issue.”

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