Another strike day in France as the anger of retirees persists

Workers went on strike and protesters marched across France on Thursday in the first major day of protests since President Emmanuel Macron raised the retirement age to 64 from 62 in parliament without a full vote, a test of the unions’ ability to sustain their pressure and the president’s ability to deal with it.

Mr Macron’s decision last week to ram through the pensions bill and the subsequent failure to dismiss his government in a vote of no confidence ended the parliamentary battle over the overhaul, and opened the way to the next phase: an increasingly bitter standoff between an inflexible president and his determined adversaries.

Mr Macron hopes to ride out the protests until they die down so pension changes can be implemented by the end of the year. The unions want to keep up the pressure from the streets and the strikes, and they are also pinning their hopes on the legal challenges Mr Macron’s political opponents have filed against his pension overhaul.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters were expected to take to the streets across the country, for the ninth day of nationwide protests since January. The scale of the protests will be key for the united front of trade unions which has spearheaded the marches, attracting over a million people on some occasions but failing to stop an inflexible Mr Macron until here.

“It was a social crisis, and we have moved on to a political crisis – you could even say a crisis of the regime, because the president is increasingly isolated,” said Karel Yon, a sociologist and expert on trade unions and social movements. French at the University of Paris Nanterre.

Mr. Macron’s decision to push the bill through without a vote has kept the labor movement united and fueled the anger that has energized the protests, Mr. Yon said. He noted that local blockades of factories or roads, nocturnal demonstrations by young people and other sporadic and sometimes more radical actions were now emerging “outside the traditional union framework”, without calling it into question.

“It’s a continuum,” Yon said.

National rail traffic was heavily disrupted on Thursday and many metro lines in the Paris metro were running at half capacity or less. protesters Also blocked road access at a terminal at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, and students blocked or demonstrated in front of dozens of high schools and universities. About one in five teachers had left school, according to the Ministry of Education.

Many oil refineries and fuel depots across the country were still blocked or closed, with fears growing that petrol stations were running out despite authorities’ efforts to requisition workers in some areas.

In a television interview on Wednesday, the French president said his only regret was his inability to convince a skeptical France that the age increase was urgently needed to avoid future deficits in the pension system – an emergency and a a strategy that his adversaries strongly contest.

“There are not 36 solutions,” Mr Macron said. “This reform is necessary.

But Mr Macron remained unapologetic about using a constitutional tool to force the pensions bill through the lower house of parliament without a vote last week, triggering a vote of no confidence to which his government has barely survived and intensifying the troubles that have rocked France in the past. weeks.

“How far is he willing to go in his blindness? the General Confederation of Labour, or CGT, France’s second largest union, said in a statement ahead of Thursday’s protests. “It’s no longer contempt, it’s madness!” As the social and political crisis sets in, what is the Head of State playing at? What is he looking for?

Unions staged several mass marches across the country in the months before Mr Macron passed the pension changes, and smaller, scattered and spontaneous protests broke out in cities across the country afterward. Many were peaceful marches or temporary roadblocks. But others have been marred by burning rubbish, vandalized property and clashes with riot police.

On Wednesday, Mr Macron warned he would not tolerate ‘excesses’ as he likened violent protesters to the mob that assaulted the US Congress in 2021. Around 12,000 police were deployed across France on Thursday to secure demonstrations, including 5,000 in Paris. .

The response to the protests has also fueled accusations of police brutality, needless and large-scale gathering of protesters and unwarranted preventive arrests – recriminations that were familiar during the yellow vest protests that rocked France for weeks during the Macron’s first term.

Claire Hédon, France’s human rights defender – an official mediator who citizens can turn to if they feel their rights have been violated – warned in a statement this week that she was “worried” by the videos circulating on social media and through news articles alleging police misconduct, and would “remain vigilant.”

Mr Yon, the sociologist, said the most radical protests to emerge last week were reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests – a spontaneous movement that emerged outside of a union or political framework due to anger over a fuel tax, but that has changed. in much wider protests of anger at Mr Macron’s top-down style of government.

Mr. Macron’s inflexibility and refusal to change course despite the unpopularity of the pension overhaul has “reignited the feeling of disconnection with the state and its institutions” that prevailed during the Yellow Vests crisis, Mr. .yon.

And, he added, “the Yellow Vests have been the only social movement in recent years that has made the government back down.”

Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT, or French Democratic Confederation of Labour, spoke of the conflict in frank terms on the BFMTV news channel on Thursday: “There is a democratic divide in this country”.

While the pensions bill has become law, it will be considered by the Constitutional Council, which reviews the legislation to ensure it complies with the French Constitution. A decision is expected within the next month.

Constant Meheut And Catherine Porter contributed report.

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