Emotions high at French protests over Macron's pension plan

Police said some 3,80,000 people took part in the protests across France on April 13

Published - April 14, 2023 08:33 am IST - PARIS

Protesters march during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, on April 13, 2023. Protesters opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64 marched in cities and towns around France, in a final show of anger before a decision on whether the measure meets constitutional standards.

Protesters march during a demonstration in Lyon, central France, on April 13, 2023. Protesters opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64 marched in cities and towns around France, in a final show of anger before a decision on whether the measure meets constitutional standards. | Photo Credit: AP

Protesters opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64 marched again on April 13 in cities and towns around France, in a final show of anger before a crucial decision on whether the measure meets constitutional standards.

Demonstrators targeted the Central Bank offices in Paris and briefly invaded the headquarters of luxury conglomerate LVMH— but their attention increasingly centered on the Constitutional Council, which is to decide on April 14 whether to nix any or all parts of the legislation.

Activists dumped bags of garbage outside the council's columned façade in the morning. Later, another crowd holding flares faced off with a large contingent of riot police that rushed to protect the building.

Paris police banned all gatherings outside the council from April 13 evening through April 15 morning, in an attempt to reduce pressure on the council members as they make their decision.

Police said some 3,80,000 people took part in the protests across France on April 13. The number was down from recent weeks, but unions still managed to mobilize sizable crowds. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, though dozens of injuries were reported among police and protesters.

Unions had been hoping for a strong turnout on April 13 to pressure both the government and the members of the Constitutional Council tasked with studying the text of the pension reform plan. Critics challenged the government’s choice to include the pension plan in a budget bill, which significantly accelerated the legislative process. The government’s decision to skirt a parliamentary vote by using special constitutional powers transformed opponents’ anger into fury.

The trash piles signalled the start of a new strike by garbage collectors, timed to begin with the nationwide protest marches. A previous strike last month left the streets of the French capital filled for days with mounds of reeking refuse.

Polls consistently show a majority of French people are opposed to the pension reform, which Mr. Macron says is needed to keep the retirement system afloat as the population ages. Protesters are also angry at Mr. Macron himself and a presidency they see as threatening France's worker protections and favouring big business.

Fabien Villedieu of the Sud-Rail Union said LVMH “could reduce all the holes" in France's social security system. ”So one of the solutions to finance the pension system is a better redistribution of wealth, and the best way to do that is to tax the billionaires.”

Bernard Arnault, head of LVMH, "is the richest man in the world so he could contribute,” Mr. Villedieu said.

Security forces intervened to stop vandals along the Paris march route, with 36 people detained, police said. Like in past protests, several hundred “radical elements” had mixed inside the march, police said.

Thousands also marched in Toulouse, Marseille and elsewhere. Tensions mounted at protests in Brittany, notably in Nantes and Rennes, where a car was burned.

“The mobilization is far from over,” the leader of the leftist CGT union, Sophie Binet, said at a trash incineration site south of Paris where several hundred protesters blocked garbage trucks. “As long as this reform isn’t withdrawn, the mobilization will continue in one form or another.”

CGT has been the backbone of the protest and strike movement challenging Mr. Macron's plan to increase France's retirement age from 62 to 64. Eight unions have organized protests since January in a rare voice of unity. Student unions have joined in.

Mr. Macron had initially refused a demand to meet with unions, but during a state visit on April 12 to the Netherlands proposed “an exchange” to discuss the follow-up to the Constitutional Council decision. There was no formal response to his offer.

“The contention is strong, anchored in the people," said Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union. If the measure is promulgated, “there will be repercussions,” he warned, noting the “silent anger” among the union rank and file.

Protests and labor strikes often hobble public transportation in Paris, but Metro trains were mostly running smoothly Thursday. The civil aviation authority asked airports in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes to reduce air traffic by 20%.

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