March 4. 2024. 8:41

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France protests: Turnout drops but hostility remains acute

Turnout on the 10th day of national protest against president Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform was substantially lower than last Thursday but hostility between much of the French population and their rulers remains acute.

The eight trade unions leading the anti-reform movement announced an 11th day of strikes and protests on April 6th, and accused the government of deliberately aggravating the crisis.

About 740,000 people demonstrated across France, with 93,000 in Paris, the interior ministry said. The communist trade union CGT claimed two million marched throughout the county, 450,000 in Paris.

That compared with more than a million, according to the government last Thursday, March 23rd, or more than three million, according to the CGT. Violence during the night from Thursday to Friday convinced Mr Macron to postpone a state visit by Britain’s King Charles III.

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Tuesday’s demonstrations were marked by charges by riot police, about 60 arrests in Paris, the looting of a Leclerc supermarket in the boulevard Voltaire and numerous fires, including a bonfire of plastic crates from the supermarket. Much of the demonstration route was shrouded in tear gas. At least two people were wounded.

Protestors chanted “Acab”, the acronym for “All cops are b*****ds.” Skirmishes between riot police and demonstrators continued on the Place de la Nation into the evening.

The CGT announced that Paris rubbish collectors would resume work on Wednesday and begin clearing 7,000 tonnes of garbage from the streets of the capital. The trade union’s statement said discussions were needed with sanitation workers “so as to restart a stronger strike. The fight isn’t over. Macron and [prime minister Elisabeth] Borne must withdraw this reform.”

Weariness after two months of protests and unwillingness to sacrifice another day’s salary partly explain lower numbers. Fear of being caught up in violence is another deterrent. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin warned in advance of likely “troubles to public order” and deployed a record 13,000 police and gendarmes, of whom 5,500 are in Paris.

Violence at a gathering at Sainte-Soline in the Deux-Sèvres department on Saturday, March 25th, may also have discouraged opponents of pension reform. The government wants to create a huge reservoir to serve intensive agriculture at Sainte-Soline. It is opposed by a group called Uprisings of the Earth, known as STL after its French initials. STL claims the reservoir will deplete the water table.

The interior ministry said STL activists came equipped with hoods and gas masks, rocks, mortars, Molotov cocktails and pétanque bowling balls. Two protesters remain in a coma after being injured by police grenades.

[ Protests made King Charles trip to France impossible, former diplomat says ]

Two Frenchmen have been killed in the past five years in similar incidents. The current unrest has prompted criticism of police violence, including by the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.

Non-lethal riot guns known as flash-balls have been particularly controversial since 25 people lost eyes during the 2018-2019 yellow vest riots. More than 100,000 people have signed a petition on the National Assembly’s website demanding the disbandment of the Brav-M motorcycle police, who have played a prominent role in the suppression of protest.

A plea by Laurent Berger, the leader of France’s largest trade union, the CFDT, for a “pause” in pension reform has been endorsed by the former president François Hollande. Berger suggested on Tuesday that the government choose a mediator to negotiate a truce in the crisis. Within hours, the centrist party, MoDem, which is part of Macron’s Renaissance coalition, also asked for the appointment of a mediator.

Prime minister Borne has promised to stop using Article 49.3, the constitutional mechanism she employed to pass the pension reform without a vote. She says she is prepared to talk to trade unions about labour conditions in France, but refuses to revisit the rise to 64 in the official retirement age.

Mr Macron says he wants to move forward but refuses to cede any ground. He and his entourage portray the far-left party France Unbowed as being complicit in the violence. Referring to the battle between gendarmes and protesters at Sainte-Soline, Mr Macron told a meeting at the Élysée on Monday: “This weekend we saw people ready to kill and who were ready for war over the reservoirs. We will be the last rampart against violence and anarchy.”