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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Seized by more protests, France is caught in a tense impasse

People inside a restaurant as protests against pension reform pass outside in Bordeaux, France, March 28, 2023.

By Aurelien Breeden

Stuck in a highly charged standoff, France was gripped Tuesday by another round of strikes, street demonstrations and sporadic violent protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension overhaul.

A surge of violence on the fringes of last week’s largely peaceful marches had ratcheted up tensions between Macron and opponents of the move to raise the legal age of retirement — labor unions, almost all opposition parties and more than two-thirds of the French public.

Authorities deployed 13,000 officers across the country before Tuesday’s demonstrations, including more than 5,000 in Paris, where many shops and businesses along the route of a protest march had been boarded up.

But the demonstrations Tuesday were not as widely attended as those last week, and violence ebbed slightly. About 740,000 people marched around the country, according to French authorities, versus more than 1 million last week. Labor unions gave a much higher estimate, 2 million protesters, and called for a new day of protest and strikes next week.

The disturbances Tuesday were wearingly familiar to many in France after three months of conflict: Roads and university entrances were blocked, trains and flights were canceled, and gas stations in the west and the southeast experienced shortages amid continuing disruptions at refineries and fuel depots.

Garbage was still piled up in many neighborhoods of Paris, even though one of the main garbage collector unions said it would suspend its strike Wednesday.

Macron is now in the difficult position of trying to smooth over tensions even as he forges ahead with the most contentious policy of his second term: a gradual raise of the age when most workers can start collecting a government pension, if not a full one, to 64, from 62.

Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest labor union, told reporters at a protest in Clermont-Ferrand, in central France, that it would not “be the last.”

Near the Place de la Nation in eastern Paris, where the protest march ended, the atmosphere among protesters was mostly cheerful.

“Retiring at 62 — we fought to win it; we will fight to keep it!” one group of students chanted from atop a massive bronze monument as sellers in small trailers handed out hot dogs nearby.

Still, on the 10th nationwide day of protests, some were growing weary.

“I’ve taken part in many strike days, and it’s tiring,” said Patrick Lorent, 53, a demonstrator who works in the audiovisual industry.

Lorent said he had voted for Macron in the second round of last year’s elections and would do so again if it prevented Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, from becoming president. But his ballot did not mean support for Macron’s pension overhaul, he added.

“We didn’t vote for this reform,” Lorent said. “Why doesn’t he understand?”

The protest in Paris grew tenser as night fell and the police clashed with protesters on the Place de la Nation, firing tear gas and charging to disperse the crowds.

The fury has coalesced around not just Macron’s pension plan but also his decision to push it through the lower house of Parliament without a vote, using a constitutional tool known as Article 49.3.

“The anger and resentment is at a level that I have rarely experienced,” François Hollande, a Socialist who was Macron’s predecessor — and whose approval ratings dropped to such depths during his presidency that he declined to run for reelection — said Sunday.

Macron’s timing, Hollande told the BFMTV news channel, could not have been worse.

“When you launch a pension overhaul in a context of strong inflation, heavily reduced purchasing power and worries over a war in Ukraine,” he said, “that fuels incomprehension.”

The uptick in violence last week fed accusations of police misbehavior and brutality. The government has countered that security forces are facing increasingly brazen attacks on police officers and on public buildings.

“We respect strikes and demonstrations, but we will be particularly vigilant that they do not lead to new excesses,” said Olivier Véran, the French government spokesperson.

Marches Tuesday were mostly peaceful, but protests in cities like Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Lyon included sporadic clashes as small groups of black-clad protesters lit fires and threw projectiles at the riot police.

The government and its opponents have appealed for calm, but they agree on little else. For labor unions, the increase in the legal age of retirement has always been a nonstarter. For Macron, it is necessary to balance the finances of the French pension system, which he said are unsustainable.

Tensions were also inflamed over the weekend after extremely violent clashes erupted in western France between thousands of riot police officers and environmental activists who were protesting the construction of giant water reservoirs. Two protesters sustained critical injuries in circumstances that remain unclear and are still in comas, according to authorities.

“We are in a moment of total tension, with a very deep resentment and anger that is rising,” Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, France’s largest labor union, told France 2 television Monday.

“If democracy is just electing people, and then they do what they want for five years, it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the length of a presidential term in France.

Labor unions say they are willing to discuss changes to labor laws and to the retirement system only if the government retreats on the current overhaul. The government says that it wants to discuss those issues but that the pension law has run its democratic course, and it rejected a request from Berger for what the union called a “mediation” to overcome the crisis.

Berger quickly shot back, telling reporters before the march in Paris, “I’ve had enough of these flat refusals of discussion and dialogue.”

An earlier gesture had come from Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, who said she wanted to be more circumspect in using Article 49.3 — too little, too late for the government’s opponents.

The standoff has grown increasingly bitter. Lawmakers for Macron’s party said that they had received death threats. Dozens of buildings like town halls and police stations, as well as more than 100 constituency offices of lawmakers, have been targeted by vandalism and arson over the past weeks, and more than 800 officers have been injured during protests, according to the government.

But unions, lawyers, human rights groups and the Council of Europe say authorities are also to blame for the increasing violence, accusing the police of employing excessive force and making preventive arrests.

The police’s internal watchdog and disciplinary body has opened 17 investigations of misconduct related to the protests.

Videos and audio recordings that appear to show officers beating or threatening protesters have circulated widely on social media.

The pension law will stand unless the Constitutional Council, a body that reviews legislation to ensure that it conforms to France’s Constitution, strikes parts or all of it down. A ruling is expected in April.

“Macron’s belief — or hope — remains that he can gradually ‘change the subject’ to other more popular reforms,” Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in an analysis.

But, he added, “As things stand, the confrontation looks likely to continue for several weeks.”

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