‘We’re the only check on Macron’: French protesters vow no let-up in bitter pension battle

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators hit French streets on Thursday for an eleventh day of protests and strikes against President Emmanuel Macron's deeply unpopular pension reform, with protesters determined to keep up the pressure ahead of a key court ruling.

Protesters gathered outside the Invalides in Paris on Thursday for an 11th day of strikes and rallies against pension reform.
Protesters gathered outside the Invalides in Paris on Thursday for an 11th day of strikes and rallies against pension reform. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Clashes broke out in several cities, including in Paris, where some protesters briefly set fire to the awning of a famed brasserie prized by the French president.

Macron, currently on a visit to China, is facing the biggest challenge of his second term over his fiercely contested pension overhaul, which his government rammed through parliament without a vote, using special executive powers. The move furthered enraged critics of his plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, sparking days of unrest and fuelling talk of a political and institutional crisis.

All sides in the standoff are awaiting an April 14 verdict on the validity of the reform by France's Constitutional Council, which has the power to strike down part or even all of the legislation.

While council members, known as the sages (wise ones), are expected to make a decision based on legal – not political – considerations, unions are determined to show the protest movement born in January still has momentum. They have already called for a 12th day of strikes and protests next Thursday, on the eve of the ruling.

“We’re here to put pressure on the Constitution Council,” said 29-year-old Nastasia, marching on the Esplanade des Invalides in central Paris, the starting point of the French capital’s eleventh mass rally since the start of the year.


Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter at the rally in Paris.
Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter at the rally in Paris. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24


Nastasia said she harboured “only a slim hope” of seeing the sages strike down the law, noting that most council members have been appointed either by Macron and his allies or by the conservative leader of the Senate, a longtime advocate of raising the retirement age.

“There’s little reason to think they will listen to the people any more than Macron has,” added her mother Pascaline, a teacher in the Paris region, venting her anger at a government that has refused to back down in the face of France’s biggest protests in decades.

‘People are not resigned – they’re enraged’

Macron’s government argues that raising the retirement age and stiffening the requirements for a full pension are required to balance the pension system amid rising life expectancy.

A united front of French unions, however, says the proposed measures are unfair and will disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.

The notion of pénibilité (arduousness) in particular has been a recurrent theme, with protesters lamenting the government’s refusal to acknowledge the hardship endured by low-income workers who perform physically draining tasks. Macron has in the past said he was “not a fan” of the word pénibilité, “because it suggests that work is a pain”.

Such statements reflect the government’s “disconnect from real life”, said a group of striking workers from the Prince de Galles luxury hotel in Paris, rallying in the French capital.

“Politicians have no idea what it means to carry heavy trays and lift mattresses all day long,” said their union representative. “They wouldn’t last a week in our job – let alone work till they’re 64.”


Demonstrators dressed up as prisoners "chained to their jobs" at the Paris pension protest.
Demonstrators dressed up as prisoners "chained to their jobs" at the Paris pension protest. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24


The perceived inequity of Macron’s pension reform has touched a raw nerve in a country that has the word “égalité” (equality) enshrined in its motto. Talk of its unfairness has been a key driver of the mass protests that have brought millions to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the country, drawing from well beyond the ranks of the left.

“Macron said he would unite the country, bridging the left-right divide,” said 45-year-old Hélène, an unemployed protester in Paris. “In the end, he’s united people against him.”

Polls have consistently shown that more than two thirds of the country oppose the pension overhaul. A broad majority of the French has also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and rubbish collection, last month burying the streets of Paris – the world’s most visited city – under stinking piles of trash.

Hélène dismissed talk of the protest movement losing steam, despite a dip in turnout.

“People are not resigned – they’re enraged,” she said, blasting the government’s decision to bypass parliament on such a fiercely contested reform. “There’s no checks on Macron,” she added. “We’re the only check.”

‘If people don’t bother to vote, I won’t blame them’

The interior ministry said 570,000 people protested across France on Thursday, sharply down from the 740,000 it counted last week. Official figures remain well below organisers' counts, with the CGT union claiming 400,000 people rallied in Paris while the ministry put the figure at almost ten times less.

Among the crowd, some hardline protesters pelted paint against the shields of heavily equipped policemen outside La Rotonde, a famous brasserie favoured by Macron. Its red awning briefly caught fire, before the flames were put out.

Earlier in the day, striking railway workers stormed the former headquarters of the Crédit Lyonnais bank, a building that now houses companies including the BlackRock investment firm. In the western city of Nantes, several protesters threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas.

Rallies were otherwise largely peaceful, featuring brass bands and dancing demonstrators.

“At every new rally I turn up fearing the movement has petered out, but it hasn’t,” said Hortense, a publisher in her 30s who attended all 11 protests in Paris. “People are so fed up they are ready to sacrifice their finances,” she added, pointing to the huge cost for workers of striking on multiple days.


Paris protester Hortense carries a banner reading, "What must we do to be listened to?"
Paris protester Hortense carries a banner reading, "What must we do to be listened to?" © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24


Hortense questioned the wisdom of Macron alienating swathes of the country and the opposition while leading a minority government. “Does Macron really think he can govern for the next four years with his head buried in the sand?” she asked.

Heavy-handed policing, coupled with the government’s repeated rants against “ultra-left rioters” and its criticism of rights groups, threatened to blur the line between the government and the far right in voters’ minds, Hortense added.

The bitter standoff has certainly eroded Macron’s popularity, with multiple polls now putting his approval rating at below 30 percent  its lowest level since the Yellow Vest crisis that rattled his first term in office. This week, a poll from the Elabe group suggested the far-right’s Marine Le Pen would defeat him if the presidential election of last year were repeated now.

“Last year was already a vote of despair,” said 22-year-old student Tara, one of many voters who reluctantly backed Macron in a presidential runoff in order to keep the far right out of power. She added: “If people don’t bother to vote next time, I won’t blame them.”

(With AFP)

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