Protesters and police in the French capital, Paris, have clashed for a third night as thousands took to the streets across the country and workers at refineries went on strike to oppose the government’s decision to raise the state pension age without a parliamentary vote.
The growing unrest, combined with rubbish piling up on the streets of Paris after refuse workers joined in the action, has left President Emmanuel Macron with the gravest challenge to his authority since the so-called “Gilets Jaunes”, or Yellow Vests protests, which began in late 2018.
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“Macron, Resign!” and “Macron is going to break down, we are going to win,” demonstrators chanted on the Place d’Italie in southern Paris.
Riot police used tear gas and clashed with some in the crowd as rubbish bins were set on fire.
Municipal authorities had banned rallies on Paris’s central Place de la Concorde and nearby Champ-Elysees on Saturday night after demonstrations that resulted in 61 arrests the previous night. There were 81 arrests on Saturday night.
Earlier in the French capital, a group of students and activists from the Permanent Revolution Collective briefly invaded the Forum des Halles shopping mall, waving banners calling for a general strike and shouting, “Paris, stand up! Rise up,” videos on social media showed.
People marched in towns and cities around the country after regional unions called for a weekend of protests.
BFM television also showed images of demonstrations under way in cities such as Compiegne in the north, Nantes in the west and Marseille in the south. In Bordeaux, in the southwest, police also used tear gas against protesters who had started a fire.
“The reform must be implemented … Violence cannot be tolerated,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Le Parisien newspaper.
Ariane Laget, 36, was among about 200 people demonstrating in the small southern town of Lodeve.
“We’re fed up. We feel like we’re being trampled on and no one is listening,” she told the AFP news agency.
A broad alliance of France’s main unions has said it would continue to mobilise to try to force a U-turn on the pension changes. A day of nationwide industrial action is planned for Thursday.
Thirty-seven percent of operational staff at TotalEnergies’ refineries and depots — at sites, including Feyzin in southeast France and Normandy in the north — were on strike on Saturday, a company spokesperson said.
Rolling strikes also continued on the railways.
Eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January and many local industrial actions have so far been largely peaceful, but the unrest over the past three days is reminiscent of the Yellow Vests protests, which erupted over high fuel prices and forced Macron into a partial U-turn on a carbon tax.
Macron’s overhaul raises the pension age by two years to 64, which the government says is essential to ensure the system does not go bust.
The government has said the change is necessary to avoid the system slipping into deficit and brings France in line with its European neighbours, where the legal retirement age is typically higher.
But critics say the changes are unfair for people who start working at a young age in physically tough jobs and women who interrupt their careers to raise children.
Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said the retirement reform “must be withdrawn”.
“We condemn violence. … But look at the anger. It’s very strong, even among our ranks,” he said on RMC radio.