The San Juan Daily Star
Strikes, marches and clashes in France as pension anger persists
By Catherine Porter and Aurelien Breeden
Huge street protests and widespread strikes rocked France on Thursday as demonstrators mounted a fierce display of resistance to a new law raising the retirement age and of fury at President Emmanuel Macron, who bypassed a full vote in Parliament to force the measure through.
The outpouring of protest, marked by clashes with the police, came a day after Macron doubled down on pushing retirement back from 62 to 64, characterizing the reform as “unpopular” but “necessary.” But if he seemed determined not to back down, so did the protesters.
“The government was counting on the movement losing steam,” Philippe Martinez, leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest union, told reporters at the start of the protest in Paris on Thursday.
“The determination is there,” Martinez said. “The willingness to fight is there, and the objective is the same: repeal the law.”
Although most marchers remained peaceful, there was a surge in violence in some cities, among them Paris, Nantes and Rennes, where groups of black-clad and masked protesters smashed windows, lit fires and threw cobblestones and bottles at the riot police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons and dispersal grenades. About 12,000 officers were deployed across France on Thursday to police the protests, including 5,000 in Paris.
The head of the country’s largest union condemned all violence.
“We have to keep public opinion with us until the end,” Laurent Berger, head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, warned at the march’s start.
By the time the march in Paris reached its final destination four hours later, protesters were coughing and sneezing through clouds of tear gas. The police had cordoned off most exits.
Across the country, daily life was disrupted.
One in five teachers was on strike, train service and regional flights were reduced, and many oil refineries and fuel depots were blocked by strikers, sparking fears of gas shortages. Famous tourist spots were shuttered, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the nearby Château de Versailles.
Students blocked access to dozens of high schools and universities, protesters blocked ports and roads, and electricity workers said they had briefly cut power to symbolic locations — including the president’s official summer residence in southern France.
It all amounted to what was clearly the biggest challenge Macron has faced since his reelection last year.
“It was a social crisis, and we have moved to a political crisis — one might even say a crisis of the regime, because the president is increasingly isolated,” said Karel Yon, a sociologist and expert on French unions and social movements at the University of Paris Nanterre.
Last week, Macron’s government survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament set off by his decision to push the retirement change through without a full vote — but Thursday made clear that the street is not done having its say.
Since then, France has thronged with protest, with organized union actions around the country and many smaller, spontaneous protests breaking out at night. These are led mostly by youths who chant and light afire the piles of garbage clogging the city because of strikes by garbage workers.
“The union marches have shown their limits,” said Hélène Aldeguer, a comic book artist who marched in all eight national union-organized protests before deciding to join in with the spontaneous ones. “People think that mode of protest doesn’t work.”
In his television interview Wednesday, Macron characterized his decision to champion the retirement change as one of responsible governance. He said that he had known it would be unpopular, but that it would ensure the country’s pension system’s long-term viability. His only regret, he said, was that he hadn’t managed to get the country to agree with him.
While Macron said he was listening to anger rising off the street, he offered no concessions. “There aren’t 36 solutions,” he said. “This reform is necessary.”
Yon said Macron’s inflexibility has “reactivated the feeling of a disconnect with the state and its institutions” that marked the Yellow Vest crisis of Macron’s first term. That protest movement emerged spontaneously, outside a union or political framework, amid anger over a fuel tax, then morphed into far broader and sometimes violent protests.
“The yellow vests were the only social movement of the past years that made the government back down,” Yon said.
That hope, along with fury at the intransigence of their president, is what drew thousands out to the streets Thursday.
One protester, Christèle Le Manac’h, said she had been close to abandoning the fight. But then she saw Macron “smirking on national television yesterday,” she said.
“Smiles are not welcome these days,” said Le Manac’h, 57, an export controller, who was in a crowd of protesters in Paris dotted by giant union balloons and flags. “How can he just grin while talking about our pensions?”
Faced with enormous protests, she pointed out, the French government scrapped a youth-jobs contract in 2006 after it had become law. “It worked in 2006,” she said. “Why can’t it work now?”
The government’s critics say its response to the protests has worsened the crisis, as it did during the yellow-vest protests. Once again, there have been accusations of police brutality and reports of the large-scale corralling of demonstrators and preventive arrests.
Claire Hédon, France’s defender of rights — an official ombudsman whom citizens can petition if they believe their rights have been violated — said this week that she was “worried” by videos circulating on social media and by reports of police misconduct. She pledged to “remain vigilant.”
Some believe that despite the fierce public passions, the retirement law’s opponents have already lost the battle.
“The unions did everything to maintain unity, to mobilize, and they did that very well,” said Guy Groux, a sociologist at Sciences Po who specializes in political activism and trade unions. “But the reform has been pushed through and will stand until the Constitutional Council rules on it in one month.”
Opponents of Macron have filed legal challenges against his pension overhaul with the council, which examines legislation to ensure it complies with the constitution.
Groux predicted that, like past protests against changes to the much-lauded French retirement system, the movement new would fizzle — even the spontaneous protests — “and Macron will still have four more years as president of France.”
Even if that is the case, Macron’s party, Renaissance, and its centrist allies have only a slim majority in Parliament, and the dispute over pensions has added to doubts about his ability to get his policies enacted.
Already, the government has been forced to postpone an immigration bill that was supposed to come up for debate in the Senate, France’s upper house, next week, because it was unclear whether a majority of lawmakers will back it.
Macron’s allies say they are confident the turbulence is temporary.
Sacha Houlié, a Renaissance lawmaker who leads the National Assembly’s law committee, acknowledged that the government had failed to convince people about the merits of the pension law, but he noted that it had gotten other laws through the lower house despite its weak majority, like a new nuclear investment plan that was adopted with a large majority this week, one day after the Cabinet narrowly survived the no-confidence vote.
“There are political difficulties that are significant, there is a social crisis which is important,” Houlié said. “But the idea that we’re now blocked is false.”
Macron has asked his prime minister to seek out lawmakers from other parties still willing to work with his majority on some bills, but opponents do not seem eager to cooperate.
“Emmanuel Macron has brought the country into a political and social dead end,” Olivier Faure, head of the Socialist Party, told the newspaper Libération on Thursday. “Who wants to govern with him?”