Protesters Storm BlackRock Building, Clash with Police over France’s Pension Changes

REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier
French CRS riot police run past objects on fire amid clashes with protesters at a demonstration as part of the eleventh day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Paris, France, April 6, 2023.

Protesters briefly invaded the building containing the office of a major global money manager and demonstrators scuffled with police in cities across France on Thursday in a show of sustained public anger over the French government’s move to raise the retirement age, even as turnout at the protests drops.

Dozens of union activists forced their way into a historic building housing the Paris headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which works with private pension funds, Reuters reported. Videos shared on social media show striking workers, clad in yellow vests, running through the cavernous lobby of the Centorial office block, in an upscale part of Paris, waving red flares and chanting: “Even if Macron doesn’t want it, we are here!” Across the city, protesters set fire to the entrance of a restaurant where President Emmanuel Macron famously celebrated his 2017 election win.

The dramatic scenes, along with peaceful marches by tens of thousands of protesters in Paris and other cities Thursday, showcased enduring opposition to Macron’s unpopular pension changes, which, if greenlighted by France’s Constitutional Council next week, will raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron has defended the change as a fiscal necessity, as life expectancy in France rises.

Strikes and demonstrations decrying the legislation have sporadically disrupted key industries and services, including rail transport and oil refinery operations, for three months.

The government’s use of executive powers to pass the measure without a vote in Parliament’s lower house last month intensified public anger against the move and a president seen by many French people as elitist and out of touch. Protests have grown more violent since then. But so far, the government shows no signs of backing down.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets Thursday in Lyon and Nantes, where police turned tear gas on protesters. Some protesters vandalized storefronts and lit fire to trash cans. In Marseille, France’s second-largest city, protesters walked across the tracks at the main train station, disrupting rail traffic.

The CGT, one of France’s main unions, said some 400,000 people took part in the protest in Paris Thursday, the Associated Press reported, compared to 450,000 the previous week. Riot police clashed with protesters, some of whom smashed bank windows and threw projectiles at police. Photos showed protesters engulfed by clouds of tear gas at the demonstration’s end. At Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport, protesters blocked road access leading to one terminal, according to the airport operator.

France’s interior ministry said 154 officers had been injured as of Thursday evening, 13 of whom were hospitalized. At least 111 protesters were arrested.

It was unclear how many protesters suffered injuries Thursday; French police do not keep a tally. The Observatory of Street Medics, an organization that tracks injuries from police violence, said at least 110 people were injured during the protests Thursday, 12 of them seriously.

Human rights monitors have accused French police of using excessive force against demonstrators, including those marching peacefully. Videos and accounts of arbitrary arrests and of police beating protesters has drawn attention to policing tactics in France, and to one riot police unit in particular, known as the BRAV-M. More than 250,000 people have signed a petition to Parliament to dissolve the brigade, but the assembly’s legal committee moved Wednesday to disregard it.

The action targeting BlackRock, an international money manager protesters see as complicit in the privatization of pensions in France, was one of the protest movement’s boldest. France’s public pension system, with its relatively low minimum retirement age compared to European peers, is seen by many French people as a pillar of the social contract in a country where retirement is a treasured period of life. Opponents of the change argue it will have a disproportionately negative impact on lower-income French people.

“The government wants to throw away pensions, it wants to force people to fund their own retirement with private pension funds, but what we know is that only the rich will be able to benefit from such a setup,” Françoise Onic, a 51-year-old schoolteacher who participated in the BlackRock action, told Reuters.

The demonstrators left the building after about half an hour, according to Reuters, whose parent company also has an office in that building.

A spokesman for BlackRock declined to comment.

As is often the case, the unions and French authorities gave vastly different estimations for crowd sizes at protests across the country. According to both counts, though, turnout for the 11th round of nationwide demonstrations was lower than during last week’s strikes, signaling that the protest movement could be losing steam.

The unions and government remain at a stalemate, after talks between union leaders and French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne failed to produce a breakthrough on Wednesday, and unions dubbed them a “failure.” Weeks of protests have not persuaded the government to backtrack on the effort. The Paris Metro ran nearly according to schedule, according to the AP, and the proportion of teachers on strike dropped compared to previous weeks.

Still, the demonstrations reflected the strength of public ire at Macron, of which the burning of one of the president’s favorite restaurants Thursday served as a potent symbol. The red awning of La Rotonde bistro, where Macron celebrated his 2017 election win, caught fire after a smoke bomb hit it as protesters threw projectiles at police, French newspaper Le Monde reported. Firefighters quickly contained the blaze.

As the unrest unfolded Thursday, Macron was in China, where he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Union leaders on Thursday announced a 12th national mobilization scheduled for April 13, the day before the Constitutional Council is slated to rule on the legality of the pension measure.

In remarks to French media outlets at a demonstration Thursday, Sophie Binet, secretary general of the CGT, accused the government of “living in a parallel reality.”

She relayed the unions’ message: “If this reform is not withdrawn, we cannot speak about anything else.”