Protesters, police clash as French gov’t survives pension votes

Gov’t survives two confidence motions tabled to protest against President Macron’s decision to bypass parliament to raise the retirement age.

Protests erupted in the centre of Paris and other French cities as demonstrators clashed with police who used tear gas to clear some areas after the government narrowly survived two votes of no-confidence in the aftermath of President Emmanuel Macron pushing through recent pension reform.

Protests were reported on Monday night in Dijon, Strasbourg — where protesters smashed the windows of a department store — Lyon, and Rennes.

More than 100 people were arrested in Paris alone in tense standoffs between protesters and security forces, police said. On some of the French capital’s most prestigious avenues, firefighters scrambled to put out piles of burning rubbish, left uncollected for days due to strikes and set on fire by protesters.

Clashes due to the pension reform in Paris and throughout the country over the past several nights have been reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests that erupted in late 2018 over high fuel prices.

A ninth nationwide day of strikes and protests is scheduled on Thursday.

The protests were sparked after motions earlier on Monday were tabled by legislators who were infuriated by Macron’s decision last week to bypass parliament and raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by using special constitutional powers.

People walk past burning rubbish during a demonstration in Lyon, eastern France.
People walk past burning rubbish during a demonstration in Lyon, eastern France, on March 20, 2023 [Jeff Pachoud/AFP]

A first multiparty motion was rejected by nine votes while the 577-seat National Assembly overwhelmingly rejected a second motion brought by the far right. With the failure of both votes, the pension change is considered adopted. It will now go to the Constitutional Court for review and could become law in the coming days.

The tight result in the first vote led some left-wing legislators to immediately call for Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to resign.

“Only nine votes are missing … to bring both the government down and its reform down,” left-wing politician Mathilde Panot said. “The government is already dead in the eyes of the French. It doesn’t have any legitimacy any more.”

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said her group would file a request for the Constitutional Council to examine the bill on Tuesday and possibly censure it.

Macron says the pension reform is needed to keep the system from diving into deficit as France’s population ages.

But critics of the reform disagree, saying it places an unfair burden on low earners, women and people doing physically demanding jobs. Opinion polls have consistently shown that two-thirds of French people oppose the changes.

Opposition to the bill has reverberated on the streets. French workers have been protesting for weeks and have pledged to continue to ramp up pressure on the government and eventually push it to scrap the law.

“The political battle is not over,” Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said.

“There is a lot of frustration among some people who feel that the government is out of touch with the concerns, and there is very much a feeling in the air … a sense of social unrest and unease with the government,” Butler said.

She noted that the mood resembled the atmosphere of a wave of protests that began in late 2018. Back then, the so-called Yellow Vests, demonstrators known by the safety vests they wore, rallied against a plan to increase fuel taxes — subsequently retracted — the rising cost of living, economic inequalities, as well as other policies sought by Macron.

In Paris, rubbish is reeking as it piles ever higher on the 15th day of a strike by collectors. The three main incinerators serving the French capital have been mostly blocked as has a rubbish sorting centre northwest of Paris. Some refineries that supply petrol stations also are at least partially blocked.

On Monday, hundreds of mainly young protesters gathered at Les Invalides, the final resting place of Napoleon, to demonstrate against pension reform. Some rubbish bins were set on fire, but the protest was otherwise calm. Participants listened to the proceedings in the National Assembly through a channel broadcast on loudspeakers from a union van.

“The goal is to support the workers on strike in Paris … to put pressure on this government, which wants to pass this unjust, brutal and useless and ineffective law,” said Kamel Brahmi of the leftist CGT union, speaking to workers with a bullhorn at the Romainville sorting plant.

Unions are demanding that the government withdraw the pension changes and have called for new nationwide protests on Thursday.

Political expert Francoise Gere from the French Strategic Analysis Institute said France is facing a “dangerous political and social crisis”.

“It’s the beginning of a new form of political crisis, a combination of more frequent street demonstrations and strikes, which hurt more and more the economy of the country, combined with a government which cannot rely on a strong political majority,” Gere told Al Jazeera, warning that a deep and serious crisis is unfolding.

“The important issue here is that this government is no longer credible,” Gere said. “There is a crisis of legitimacy, and Macron will have to address this situation.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies