France Strikes Intensify as Anger Mounts over Retirement Age Hike

REUTERS/Yves Herman
People walk past burnt garbage bins and bags in a street during a strike of garbage collectors and the day after clashes during protests over French government’s pension reform in Paris, France, March 24, 2023.

Strikes in France brought trains to a halt as more than a million protesters flooded the streets, clashing with police in some cities on Thursday, in a resounding burst of defiance after President Emmanuel Macron pushed through legislation to raise the retirement age.

Transportation workers, teachers and a broad coalition of others across the country marched against the pension bill, which would raise the minimum retirement age by two years to 64. Riot police scuffled with protesters in cities including Bordeaux, Rennes and Nantes. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched in Paris, largely peacefully, while some more radical activists lit fires, smashed storefronts and hurled tear gas bombs at police. In Bordeaux, protesters lit the door to the city hall on fire.

The Interior Ministry said more than 1 million people joined the protests, while one of the main labor confederations, the CGT, which is at the heart of the strike, estimated that three times that number had taken part.

Labor unions are trying to raise pressure on the government a day after Macron gave a television interview that stoked their building anger. In the face of widespread opposition, the president doubled down on the pension overhaul as an unpopular but necessary way to ensure the future of the country’s pension system as life expectancy rises. Union leaders, vowing to block the change by way of strikes and protests, described his remarks as contemptuous and inaccurate.

The government’s use of executive powers to push the bill through has intensified a standoff with unions, which have drawn huge crowds to protests since January but so far failed to sway Macron.

CGT told Agence France-Presse that an estimated 800,000 people took to the streets of Paris on Thursday alone. The Interior Ministry gave a lower figure of 119,000. At least 103 protesters had been arrested in Paris as of Thursday evening, according to the police department.

Police told French media that some 16,000 protesters marched through the southern port city of Marseille, where striking rail workers marched onto the tracks at the train station and vowed to block trains from running until the pension plan is withdrawn.

The country’s civil aviation body warned of disruptions to flights into and out of airports for Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon, urging passengers to delay their travel and contact airlines.

Outside Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, one of Europe’s busiest airports, protesters blocked a highway leading to one of the terminals. The blockade forced some travelers to reach the airport on foot, the French channel BFM TV reported.

As tourist attractions including the Eiffel Tower and the Versailles Palace closed, Transportation Minister Clement Beaune tweeted that officials were meeting at a crisis center to monitor public transport disruptions “hour by hour.”

Rolling strikes have also disrupted access to refineries, causing shortages at the pump in gas stations in various parts of the country. The government on Thursday renewed a requisition order to force a fuel depot in southern France to supply the region, Reuters reported. Striking oil workers tried to block access to the refinery on Thursday. In Paris, meanwhile, walkouts by trash collectors have left heaps of garbage bags spilling out onto the sidewalks this month.

Thursday’s industrial action drew people of a variety of ages, backgrounds and professions, with young people marching shoulder-to-shoulder with older protesters closer to retirement age. Helmeted firefighters joined the fray in Paris, cheered on by the crowd.

The Education Ministry estimated about a quarter of middle-school teachers and roughly 15 percent of high school teachers went on strike. Students joined in cities including Nantes, where one protester held a sign featuring a drawing of a skeleton that said: “Long live retirement.”

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he had ordered the deployment of nearly 12,000 police officers, including 5,000 in Paris on Thursday. Police turned tear gas and batons on protesters in several cities Thursday. Footage shared on social media showed bystanders booing as riot police in Paris beat back with batons a mass of demonstrators, with seemingly indiscriminate abandon. On live television, police sprayed tear gas at a group of teenagers, perched atop a bus stop shelter, talking calmly to journalists.

Police violence toward demonstrators has come under renewed scrutiny as protesters recount online and to French media outlets having been beaten or arbitrarily detained by riot police in recent weeks. Claire Hédon, France’s defender of rights, an official role focused on defending individual liberties and countering discrimination, said in a statement Tuesday that she was “worried about the testimonies she had received” and would continue to monitor the behavior of security forces.

At least 123 police officers were injured in Thursday’s demonstrations, according to Darmanin, who also condemned “unacceptable attacks” on a police station in Lorient, in western France.

Dramatic footage Thursday night showed flames engulfing the front entrance to Bordeaux city hall as a crowd cheered outside. In an interview on French television, Pierre Hurmic, the city’s mayor, said he was “extremely shocked” that an institution he described as “the home of every Bordeaux resident” was targeted.

After the government passed the pension bill through the lower house of Parliament without a vote last week, the text faces a review from the Constitutional Council. Still, Macron says the law should come into effect by the end of the year.

Since his government survived two no-confidence votes this week, the test now is whether Macron’s determination can outlast the unions’ ability to bring pressure to bear on the streets.

“Yesterday, the president of the Republic mocked us,” said Marie Buisson, a senior official in the CGT.

“We will continue” even if the bill is adopted “because what we refuse is this reform that forces everyone to work for two extra years,” she said on the radio. “You can clearly see the enormous anger out there.”

The unrest comes at a diplomatically sensitive moment for Macron, who is preparing to host Britain’s King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort, next week. The royal pair are scheduled to be in France from Sunday to Wednesday, before continuing on to Germany – the first state visit of Charles’s reign. Their itinerary includes a state banquet with Macron at the Versailles Palace, according to a news release ahead of the visit. The choice of that venue, a symbol of the excesses and detachment of France’s elite, has already lent itself to protest slogans portraying Macron as a 21st-century king, in better touch with actual monarchs than with ordinary citizens.

French authorities were contemplating Thursday moving the dinner to another location, possibly the Élysée Palace, French TV channel BFM reported, while unions signaled they would organize demonstrations around the visit. Disruptions to transportation networks could impact other parts of the official visit as well. Striking workers have refused to roll out a red carpet for the king’s visit, in opposition to the pension reform and in solidarity with workers on strike in Britain. The president’s office said other workers would ensure the customary bells and whistles were in place for the British monarch’s arrival, the Associated Press reported.

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said authorities were not in denial about the crisis but hoped to resolve it. “There are many subjects which could allow for renewing a dialogue,” he said, including the way in which companies share profits with workers.

“I don’t believe at all that from one day to the next, within 12 to 24 hours, that we could pass from a state of conflict to an entente,” he added. “Things will be done gradually.”

The national train company said Thursday evening that it expected circulation to improve Friday, and the Paris public transit authority said traffic would return to normal.

But the unrest shows no signs of abating: Union leaders called Thursday evening for another national mobilization on Tuesday – the day King Charles is scheduled to visit Bordeaux.