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France: Nationwide strikes, protests as Macron defiant

March 23, 2023

Protests erupted in several cities a day after President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on raising the pension age. Worker strikes shut down transport, while protesters blocked highways and other infrastructure.

A firefighter tries to extinguish a fire during a demonstration, a week after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Paris on March 23, 2023.
As well as riot police, firefighters were also required in Paris and other citiesImage: Anna Kurth/AFP/Getty Images

French unions staged a national day of protests on Thursday, a day after President Emmanuel Macron issued a defiant defense of having forced through an increase of the retirement age. 

Although most of the larger demonstrations were peaceful, there were multiple instances of unrest in the capital and other major cities, particularly later in the day. 

Clashes between protesters and authorities

In Paris, police fired teargas and baton-charged crowds after some protesters were seen throwing stones and directing fireworks at security forces.

In Bordeaux, protesters set fire to the entrance of the city hall causing damage to the historic building. 

Police officers stand guard next to the gate of the city hall after it was set on fire by protesters after a demonstration, a week after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Bordeaux, western France, on March 23, 2023.
Police were stationed outside the Bordeaux city hall on Thursday evening after the fire was set, with some damage still visibleImage: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Police also fired tear gas at protesters in several other cities, including Nantes and Bordeaux. In Rennes, they used water cannon.

On Friday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told news outlet CNews authorities had arrested 457 protesters and that roughly 440 security force members had been injured. Dozens of protesters were also injured, including a woman who lost a thumb in the Normandy town of Rouen. 

"There are thugs, often from the far-left, who want to bring down the state and kill police officers," Darmanin said of some groups like the so-called "Black bloc" anarchists the government say are hijacking the protests after visiting Paris police headquarters late on Thursday.

Late Thursday the Interior Ministry said 1.09 million people had turned out for protests, whereas the CGT union claimed that figure was in fact 3.5 million.

Ongoing protests at pension reform

The demonstrations were the ninth round of protests called by France's major unions since January and follow days of unplanned protests over the weekend.

"The best response we can give the president is that there are millions of people on strike and in the streets," said Philippe Martinez, who leads the CGT union.

Trade unions have called for a new day of nationwide strikes next Tuesday, when Britain's King Charles III is scheduled to visit the country. 

Oil depots, schools, electricity output, rail and more affected 

In the northern city of Dunkirk protesters targeted oil depots and blocked a major LNG terminal.

The strike also forced utility suppliers to cut the country's electricity output on Thursday.

A protester holds a flare as he takes part in a demonstration on a national action day, a week after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote
Spontaneous protests have broken out on a daily basis in recent days, leading to hundreds of arrests and accusations of heavy-handed tactics by policeImage: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

Around a fifth of schoolteachers did not turn up for work on Thursday, the Education Ministry said.

Earlier in the day, protesters blocked railway lines and road access to the Charles de Gaulle airport.

Protesters also blocked major highways and interchanges near Lille, Toulouse, Lyon and other cities.

Half of all high-speed trains nationwide were canceled, national railway operator SNCF said.

Paris municipal garbage collectors have pledged to uphold a rolling strike until Monday, as thousands of tonnes of rubbish rot on the streets.

Macron's approval sinks

Polling on Sunday showed that Macron's personal approval rating had fallen to 28% — the lowest level since the Yellow Vest anti-government protests in 2018 and 2019.

On Wednesday, Macron made his first public remarks since the pension bill was forced through Parliament. He said he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the changes were "necessary" and "in the general interest of the country."

Most comparable western European economies have a higher standard retirement age than France, typically 65, and several plan to raise this further. 

Yet Macron has come under criticism from those arguing he should entertain tax increases on the wealthy as an alternative means of maintaining state revenue. Critics also say the pension reform places an increased burden on manual laborers and parents who stop working for several years to raise children.

Laurent Berger, the head of France's biggest union, the moderate CFDT, said Macron's comments "increased the anger."

Protesters on top of a van
Macron says he's prepared to accept unpopularity for increasing the pension ageImage: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said the government was not in denial about public sentiment but would nevertheless move forward "gradually."

"There is a disagreement that will persist on the retirement age," he said. "On the other hand, there are many subjects which make it possible to renew a dialogue.”

lo,zc, msh/es (AFP, Reuters, AP)