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The awning of La Rotonde restaurant was set on fire during a demonstration Christophe Ena/AP

'We haven't given up yet': Pension protests continue across France after talks end in deadlock

Protesters attacked one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s favourite restaurants today.

LAST UPDATE | 6 Apr 2023

RADICAL PROTESTERS CLASHED with French security forces today in a new show of anger against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms, with dozens arrested and some starting a fire at one of his favourite restaurants.

While the number of protesters has diminished, unions are keen to maintain almost three months of pressure ahead of a key court ruling next week on the retirement overhaul.

The controversial reforms seek to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, while requiring people to work longer for a full pay-out.

Macron, currently visiting China, is facing the biggest challenge of his second term over the changes, defiantly refusing to budge despite sliding personal popularity ratings.

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 out some or even all of the legislation.

While council members, known as the “wise ones”, will make a decision in line with a strict interpretation of the law, unions want to show the protest movement still has drive.

Among the crowd, some hardline protesters pelted paint against the shields of heavily equipped policemen outside La Rotonde, a famous Paris brasserie favoured by Macron.

An AFP journalist saw a group of men dressed in black set off fireworks and throw stones toward the eatery.

The fire was caused by a flare thrown onto the fabric awning, and firefighters came to extinguish it.

Macron held a victory party at the restaurant during his successful 2017 election bid. 

Elsewhere in Paris, protesters attacked a bank branch, breaking glass and carrying off files and computer keyboards, an AFP correspondent saw.

Some threw projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas. The Paris police headquarters said there had been injuries among officers, without saying how many.

“We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis,” Laurent Berger, head of the centrist CFDT union, told RTL radio.

“It’s a problem… that needs to be solved by the president.”

Protests descended into violent unrest after Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on 16 March invoked a controversial executive power to ram the bill through parliament without a vote.

Demonstrations are being held across the country, with people brandishing placards or waving union flags from Nantes in the west to the southern coastal cities of Montpellier and Marseille.

Tear gas deployed

“We haven’t given up yet and we don’t intend to,” said 50-year-old public servant Davy Chretien as he marched in Marseille.

a-youth-kicks-a-tear-gas-canister-during-a-protest-thursday-april-6-2023-in-nantes-western-france-hundreds-of-thousands-of-people-are-expected-to-fill-the-streets-of-france-thursday-for-the-11th-d A youth kicks a tear gas canister during a protest in Nantes, western France. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In the western city of Nantes, rumbling tractors joined the parade of marchers and thick clouds of police tear gas were deployed against demonstrators.

Public radio France Bleu reported that police tear gas also was fired to disperse demonstrators in the Brittany city of Rennes.

At Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, about 100 demonstrators blocked a road leading to terminal one on Thursday and entered the terminal building, the airport operator said.

It said flights were unaffected, but travellers with their luggage had to weave their way past flag-waving protesters.

A CGT representative at the airport, Loris Foreman, told BFM-TV that the demonstrators wanted “to show the world and Europe that we don’t want to work to 64 years old”.

Striking railway workers stormed the former headquarters of the Credit Lyonnais bank in central Paris, a famed building that now houses companies including the BlackRock investment firm, setting off smoke flares and whistling in a 20-minute action.

The striking workers had less of an impact on transport services than during previous days of protests. But the marches around the country showed that opposition to the pension reform remains strong.

‘Democratic crisis’

Unions said a meeting with Borne on Wednesday made no progress after she refused to discuss going back on the minimum retirement age of 64.

“It’s clearly a failure when the prime minister won’t even allow a way into that discussion,” said Cyril Chabanier, speaking on behalf of the country’s eight main unions after they walked out barely an hour into the talks.

railway-workers-gather-at-the-gare-de-lyon-train-station-thursday-april-6-2023-in-paris-hundreds-of-thousands-of-people-are-expected-to-fill-the-streets-of-france-thursday-for-the-11th-day-of-nati Railway workers gather at the Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It was the first such gathering between the two sides since the government presented the contentious pensions bill in January.

Despite refusing to budge on the issue, Borne said she would not move forward with any other labour topics “without social partners”.

Berger said Wednesday that France was experiencing “a grave democratic crisis”.

Macron is to remain for the rest of the week in China, where an aide denied this allegation given that the pension change was in the president’s manifesto during his re-election campaign last year.

“You can’t speak of a democratic crisis when the bill has been enacted, explained to the public and the government is taking responsibility for it,” said the aide, asking not to be named.

Union chiefs called for French people to take to the streets and strike en masse today.

However, turnout in the previous round of strikes and protests last Tuesday was down on the week earlier.

high-school-students-block-their-school-thursday-april-6-2023-in-paris-hundreds-of-thousands-of-people-are-expected-to-fill-the-streets-of-france-thursday-for-the-11th-day-of-nationwide-resistance High school students blocking their school in Paris this morning. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A record number of people, more than 1.2 million, marched against the reform nationwide on 7 March.

Sophie Binet, the new leader of the CGT trade union, called for more protests and strikes.

“We have to continue mobilising until the end, until the government understands there is no way out other than withdrawing this reform,” she said.

“The government will not be able to govern the country until this reform is repealed.”

The Paris metro system for the first time on a strike day experienced minimal disruption, and across the country only one in four high-speed trains was cancelled.

Students picketed outside schools and universities in several cities, but the education ministry said only eight percent of schoolteachers were on strike.

paris-france-05th-apr-2023-a-banner-reading-64-it-is-no-hangs-on-the-top-of-the-triumph-arc-during-an-action-by-demonstrators-against-the-governments-pension-reform-in-paris-france-on-april A banner reading "No to 64!" hangs on the top of the Arc de Triomphe Arc during an action by demonstrators against the government's pension reform in Paris. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Activists on Wednesday unfurled a banner at the top of the capital’s landmark Arc de Triomphe, reading “No to 64″.

Le Pen edges Macron in poll

The government has argued that the changes are necessary to prevent the pensions system from plunging into deficit.

In the rest of Europe, people mostly retire in their late sixties as life expectancy has increased.

Critics say the pensions reform is unfair for workers in tough jobs who start their careers early, as well as women who interrupt their work life to raise children.

If the Constitutional Council gives its green light on 14 April, Macron will be able to sign the changes into law.

But the standoff has eroded his popularity, with a poll suggesting Wednesday far-right leader Marine Le Pen would beat him if the presidential election of last year were repeated now.

The survey from the Elabe group for the BFMTV news channel indicated Le Pen would score 55% and Macron 45% if they faced each other in a run-off vote.

© AFP 2023, with additional reporting from the Press Association

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