Violent protests have ‘weakened unions’ in retirement battle

As the French government gets closer to signing a law that will raise the retirement age in France from 60 to 62, a leading French labour expert says violent clashes between youths and police have undermined the unions’ position.


French unions have been forced onto the back foot after clashes between a small hard core of violent protesters and police, according to a leading French labour expert.

The violence this week, amid huge country-wide strikes, blockades and demonstrations, has weakened France's powerful labour organisations and played directly into the hands of the government, according to Bernard Vivier, director of France’s Higher Institute of Labour (a leading French thinktank).

“The unions are embarrassed by this violence, which is led by anarchist elements of the unions who want to derail any attempts to negotiate with the government,” he told FRANCE 24.

“It has put the brakes on the unions’ momentum, while they themselves recognise that reforms to the pension system are needed,” he added. “These violent protesters want to do anything possible to stop negotiations, and their actions have shot the protest movement in the foot.”

Official spokespeople from France’s major unions were unavailable for comment when this article was published.

Mostly peaceful

Footage and pictures of hooded youths and baton-wielding riot police have dominated international headlines.

However, Tuesday's protests, in which between one million people (according to police) and 3.5 million (according to unions) took to the streets on Tuesday, were largely peaceful.

Violence erupted on the fringes of some marches, notably in Lyon, where hundreds of masked rioters torched cars, smashed store windows and destroyed bus shelters.

In nine days of demonstrations and strikes, some 1,500 alleged rioters have been arrested, 428 after Tuesday’s clashes, according to the interior ministry.

Sporadic protests continued on Wednesday, with groups blocking access to regional airports at Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Clermont Ferrand.

The demonstrations, organised by France’s powerful trades unions, come as the French government was finalising a law to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

The law, which will likely be signed off by France’s upper house of parliament, the Senate, this week, would also raise the retirement threshold for a full pension from 65 to 67.

The protests are backed by the majority of French voters who want French President Nicolas Sarkozy to retreat on what was one of the primary planks of his 2007 presidential election campaign – which he won with broad public backing.

Government action

On Tuesday, Sarkozy sent in paramilitary police to clear blockades at France's fuel depots that this week caused a wave of panic-buying and shut down one in three petrol stations across the country.

"If this disorder is not ended quickly, the attempt to paralyse the country could have consequences for jobs by disrupting the normal functioning of the economy," Sarkozy told a cabinet meeting in remarks released by his office, adding his determination to push the pension reform through.

Three depots were peacefully reopened overnight, but protestors have blockaded several more.

"We will continue to unblock these depots as much as necessary," Hortefeux said. "We will not let the country be blockaded and we will not let the thugs go unpunished," he added, referring to those arrested in street riots.

A third day of violence broke out on Wednesday morning in Lyon and the Paris suburb of Nanterre, both the scenes of earlier clashes, where a handful of cars were set alight.

The government is hoping that the protests will gradually fizzle out, as a 10-day half-term holiday begins and schools, which have been the focus of much of the violence, shut their doors.

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