Pension reform protests staged in major French cities

Citizens outraged as President Emmanuel Macron imposes overhaul without parliamentary vote

Protesters march during a demonstration near Place d'Italie in Paris. AFP
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Protests took place on Saturday against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise France's retirement age from 62 to 64.

In Paris, an eerie calm generally returned to the city after two consecutive nights of unrest and police banned gatherings on the Champs-Elysees avenue and the Place de la Concorde.

Several thousand protesters did gather at a public square in southern Paris, the Place d'Italie, where they set rubbish bins on fire.

Largely non-violent protests were held in other cities, including Nantes and Marseille, where protesters occupied the main train station for about 15 minutes. In the eastern city of Besancon, hundreds of demonstrators lit a brazier and burnt voter cards.

The unrest came after Mr Macron imposed the unpopular pension reforms without a parliamentary vote, using a controversial executive power to force through the bill by decree, fearing he did not have enough backing in the lower house to win a vote on the pensions bill.

This move has outraged France's political class and led to a confrontational backlash, presenting the president with one of his biggest challenges less than a year into his second and final mandate.

Opposition lawmakers have filed two motions of no confidence in the government, which are set to be debated in parliament on Monday afternoon. They hope to garner enough support to topple the cabinet and repeal the law, which seeks to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Unions have called for small protests at the weekend, ahead of co-ordinated nationwide strikes and rallies against the bill on Thursday next week.

On Friday evening, thousands of people rallied opposite parliament to vent their frustration at the government imposing its will despite two months of nationwide strikes and demonstrations.

Opinion polls have shown that around two-thirds of French people oppose the reform, which demands that people work longer for a full pension.

The government argues that the changes are necessary to avoid the system from slipping into deficit and bring France in line with its European neighbours, where the legal retirement age is typically later in life.

However, critics say the changes are unfair to people who start working at a young age in physically tough jobs, as well as women who interrupt their careers to raise children.

Mass strikes and protests since mid-January have gathered some of the largest crowds in decades, but the popular movement appeared to be starting to wane in the days before the government imposed the bill.

The capital's municipal rubbish collectors have, however, kept up a rolling strike, leaving an estimated 10,000 tonnes of trash festering in the streets.

Unions from national train operator SNCF on Friday urged workers to continue their continuous strike, which has caused major disruption on the network.

In the energy sector, the CGT union has said that strikers would halt production at two refineries by this weekend or Monday at the latest.

President Macron put the pension reform at the centre of his re-election campaign last year, but the 45-year-old former banker lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the National Assembly.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne's cabinet is largely expected to survive any no-confidence vote. The motion would need backing from around half the group of opposition right-wing Republicans, a scenario seen as highly improbable.

Updated: March 19, 2023, 9:32 AM