Calls for more pension protests as hundreds arrested in France

Interior minister says hundreds of police officers injured during the most violent day of protests since they began in January.

French firefighters (C) operate on a fire during a demonstration near Place de la Concorde after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49,3 of the constitution, in Paris on March 16, 2023. - The French president on March 16 rammed a controversial pension reform through parliament without a vote, deploying a rarely used constitutional power that risks inflaming protests. The move was an admission that his government lacked a majority in the National Assembly to pass the legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)
French firefighters (C) operate on a fire during a demonstration near Place de la Concorde in Paris [Thomas Samson/AFP]

French authorities have arrested 457 people during nationwide protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s pensions reform as unions called for more demonstrations.

Speaking to the CNews channel, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 903 fires were lit in the streets of the capital, Paris, on Thursday.

A total of 441 security forces were injured during clashes in what was by far the most violent day of demonstrations since they began in January, even as hundreds of thousands of people across the country took part in mostly peaceful rallies.

“There were a lot of demonstrations and some of them turned violent, notably in Paris,” Darmanin said on Friday morning.

Reporting from Paris, Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler said there were more than 200 protests and strikes across France, most of which were peaceful.

“But there were some incidents of serious violence in Paris, where police and some protesters clashed,” she added. “There were scenes of virtual chaos.”

Police had warned that “anarchist” groups were expected to infiltrate the Paris march and young men wearing hoods and face masks were seen smashing windows and setting fire to uncollected rubbish in the latter stages of the demonstration against the government plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Darmanin, a right-wing hardliner in Macron’s centrist government, dismissed calls from protesters to withdraw the pensions reform which cleared parliament last week in controversial circumstances.

“I don’t think we should withdraw this law because of violence,” he said. “If so, that means there’s no state. We should accept a democratic, social debate, but not a violent debate.”

Elsewhere on Thursday, the entrance to the City Hall in the southwestern city of Bordeaux was set on fire during clashes.

“I have difficulty in understanding and accepting this sort of vandalism,” Mayor Pierre Hurmic told RTL radio on Friday.

“Why would you make a target of our communal building, of all people of Bordeaux? I can only condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Butler said people from across France’s political spectrum on Friday condemned the violence, saying it was unacceptable.

“There are though a number of people who also say that this is what happens when people protest for so long peacefully but they are not heard; then they resort to other methods – sometimes violence – in order to be heard,” she added.

Meanwhile, unions have called for more strikes and protests on Tuesday, which was due to coincide with a state visit by the United Kingdom’s new king, Charles III, his first international trip since acceding to the throne in September 2022.

But on Friday, it was announced that the state visit had been postponed.

Speaking at a news conference after a summit in Brussels, Macron said it would not have reflected “common sense and friendship” to “propose a visit in the middle of the demonstrations”.

Separately, the Iranian government has urged France to listen to protesters and avoid violence.

“The French government must talk to its people and listen to their voices,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani tweeted.

“We do not support destruction or rioting, but we maintain that instead of creating chaos in other countries, listen to the voice of your people and avoid violence against them,” he added.

Kanaani was referring to criticism, including from France, of Iran’s response to months-long protests triggered by the death of a 22-year-old woman after her arrest for an alleged breach of Iran’s strict dress code for women.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies