The San Juan Daily Star
French unions, still furious over pension law, resume protests
By Aurelien Breeden
French workers marched and went on strike around the country on Thursday for the 11th time in three months, as the stalemate between President Emmanuel Macron and labor unions endured even after his pension overhaul, which raised the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62, has become law.
About 570,000 protesters took to the streets of France, according to French authorities, with violent clashes in some places. Unions gave the much higher figure of 2 million.
It was a large number but nonetheless lower than in previous rounds of protests, a sign that a movement that has posed the greatest political threat to Macron’s second term was losing some steam, at least for now.
Roughly 740,000 people marched around the country last week, and some of the biggest protest days of the past few months had attracted over 1 million people. The number of strikers in key sectors like transportation and education has also slowly declined.
France’s national railway company said three out of four high-speed trains were running on Thursday, as well as one in two regional express trains, far better than on previous strike days; while traffic on the Paris transportation network was close to normal. The Education Ministry said that about 8% of teachers were on strike, far fewer than before.
But disruptions and small acts of protest, like brief traffic blockages, have not stopped, including on days without organized protests, and some strikes could pick up again. In Paris, where the streets are now clear of mounds of trash that had piled up during a weekslong garbage-collector walkout, one of the main unions is threatening a new strike next week.
Unions are also planning a new day of protests on the eve of a key ruling on the pension law by the Constitutional Council, a body that reviews legislation to ensure that it conforms to the Constitution. That ruling is expected next week.
The protests on Thursday came a day after a cordial but fruitless meeting — the first since January — between Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and the heads of the main labor unions. The union representatives left after less than an hour and complained that they were not being heard.
“They are living in a parallel reality,” Sophie Binet, the newly elected head of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest labor union, told reporters at a march in Paris on Thursday.
Binet acknowledged that enthusiasm for the walkouts was waning in some areas, partly because of the financial burden for striking workers, but she said that the protests were a “long-distance race,” not a sprint.
As long as the pension overhaul “is not withdrawn, the mobilization will continue in one form or another,” she added.
On Wednesday, protesters briefly shut the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and unfurled a banner that read “No to 64!” from the top of the famous landmark. Electricity workers have continued making sporadic power cuts in official buildings, including at a local prefecture in Lyon on Thursday. Some universities are still being occupied by protesting students.
The chaotic unrest that followed Macron’s decision to push the law through Parliament without a full vote has slightly subsided — but not the persistent opposition to the pension overhaul and the anger against Macron, who is currently on a state visit to China but is closely following the turmoil back home.
While the protests around the country were mostly calm, they were also marred by now-familiar clashes and injuries, as a minority of protesters threw projectiles at riot police, who responded with tear gas and batons.
In Nancy, the door to a local French central bank office was set on fire. In Lyon, protesters looted a Nespresso store and tossed coffee capsules into the crowd.
In Paris, protesters lit bonfires and smashed in the windows of several bank branches. Some also targeted La Rotonde, the restaurant where Macron celebrated his 2017 electoral victory, pelting the establishment with rocks and bottles, and starting a small blaze on an awning that was quickly put out by firefighters.
France’s interior minister said that over 150 officers had been injured during the protests, and over 100 people had been arrested.
Macron’s opponents have warned that his insistence on pushing through the pension overhaul is creating a dangerous mix.
Recent polling has shown that voters would be more likely to support Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader and Macron’s strongest rival in the past two French elections, and less likely to back Macron or his allies in a hypothetical election.
Laurent Berger, the leader of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, France’s largest labor union, told reporters at a protest in Paris that Macron’s approach had led to increased mistrust toward the government, higher social tensions and more support for the far right.
“If those aren’t all the ingredients of a democratic crisis, I don’t know what is,” Berger said.
Macron’s government has argued that it followed the law at every step and that most opposition parties presented no realistic alternatives to ensure that the French pension system remains financially sustainable.
The government maintains that it wants to talk with the unions but has refused to discuss the age increase, while the unions insist that dropping the measure is the only way forward. Each side has accused the other of refusing to compromise.
“I understand that we have been unable to convince at this time, but it’s work that must continue in the long term,” Olivier Véran, spokesperson for the French government, told France Inter radio.
“The far right is high in voting intentions,” Véran acknowledged. But, he added: “Why? Because it says nothing, because it offers nothing, and as always it reaps the fruits of anger.”
The new pension law will stand as is unless the Constitutional Council strikes down part or all of it. Legal experts are divided over a possible outcome.
The conflict between Macron and the opposition is now essentially in limbo, with all sides awaiting the council’s ruling.
“The impasse” was the headline on the front page of Le Parisien, a French daily newspaper, on Thursday, while Olivier Baccuzat, deputy editor-in-chief of L’Opinion, another newspaper, wrote that the meeting between Borne and the unions “ended exactly as one might have feared: with nothing.”
“And for good reason, each of the protagonists got exactly what they came for: nothing,” he added in his editorial. “Or rather, little things that allow both sides to keep up appearances and to boast that they have not given up anything.”