March 5. 2024. 9:44

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Further nationwide protests in France against Macron’s pension reform

The sixth national day of protest against president Emmanuel Macron’s reform of the pension system brought France to a halt on Tuesday. Rolling strikes are to continue in the transport and energy sectors at least until the weekend. Power cuts and petrol shortages are possible.

“The silence of the president is leading us to an explosive situation,” France’s eight trade unions said on Tuesday night as they called for further protests on Saturday.

The communist CGT union claimed 3.5 million people demonstrated throughout France, 700,000 – of them in Paris. Police put the nationwide figure at 1.28 million, including 81,000 in Paris. In any case, the number was higher than on previous strike days.

The government has lost the battle for public opinion. A Harris Interactive poll conducted on the eve of the protests found that 72 per cent oppose the reform, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Despite the inconvenience, 59 per cent said they support a rolling transport strike.

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There were several violent incidents. Youths in black hoods smashed an SUV near the Port-Royal train station in Paris with traffic signs. The frightened driver emerged from the vehicle holding up a banner for the volunteer group Médecins Sans Frontières.

Riot police clashed with anarchists who attacked a bank in l’avenue des Gobelins. “Macron, Vandal of the Century”, said a placard carried by a demonstrator. Twenty-two people were arrested in Paris. The Place d’Italie, where the march ended, was shrouded in tear gas fired by riot police.

Opponents of the reform are now engaged in a race against time. The senate was to debate article 7, which raises the retirement age, on Tuesday afternoon, while the march continued across Paris. The upper chamber must complete its examination of the draft law by March 12th. A joint commission of the upper and lower houses will meet on March 15th to agree on a final version before the vote.

Trade unionists and demonstrators debate whether the protests can continue once the law is passed. Hardliners recall that a law creating low-paying first jobs for youths was repealed in 2006 in the face of mass protests, after it was passed.

Though the law is still likely to pass, the government is increasingly fearful that it might have to resort to article 49.3 of the constitution, which enables it to enact legislation without a vote. To do so on such a contentious issue would be extremely controversial.

Macron lost his absolute majority in last year’s legislative elections and needs two-thirds of 61 deputies from the conservative party Les Républicains to support the reform. LR senators voted through an amendment on the employment of senior citizens on Monday, against the government’s wishes.

Macron’s Renaissance group on Tuesday warned left-leaning deputies that they will be expelled from the parliamentary group and lose their seats on commissions if they vote against the reform or abstain.

A war of words continues in parallel to the street protests. “You are ignoring the French, showing contempt for them and lying to them,” Manuel Bompard, a deputy from the far-left party France Unbowed, told prime minister Élisabeth Borne in government questions on Tuesday afternoon.

Labour minister Olivier Dussopt fired back: “You have chosen excess, blockage and obstruction.”

Borne spent most of a television appearance on the eve of the protests attempting to limit damage from the government’s poor handling of communication about the reform. The worst mistake was to imply in January that the reform guaranteed a minimum pension of €1,200 per month for all French people.

Borne confirmed that only 10,000 to 20,000 French people would qualify for €1,200 monthly, saying that the minimum pension had been promised “a little rapidly”.

Opponents of the reform have chosen their words carefully since Emmanuel Lépine, a CGT leader, was widely criticised for threatening to “bring the French economy to its knees”.

The government spokesman, Olivier Véran, apologised for saying that “bringing France to a halt” would mean “taking the risk of an ecological, agricultural, health and humanitarian catastrophe”.

Frédéric Souillot, the leader of leftist union Force Ouvrière, mocked Véran’s hyperbole saying: “We know the seven plagues of Egypt was us.”