Over three million demonstrators took to the streets across the country in what some security sources described as an “insurrection” against the government in Paris. French authorities struggled on Thursday to suppress the protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform.
According to the French Interior Ministry, over one million people participated in demonstrations against the pension reform bill across France, while unions give the estimate at over three million, French media reported Thursday. The police estimated more than a million protesters were in the streets.
Multiple eyewitnesses described the situation as “out of control.”
It is war in Paris, no time to post, take care of yourself,” tweeted one independent media outlet.
Media reports said:
Tens of thousands of workers went to strike and protesters blocked public transportation, schools and oil refineries.
Attempting to break up the protests, police used tear gas, water cannons, flash-bangs and batons.
Videos making rounds on social media showed heavily armored officers clubbing unarmed demonstrators.
Barricades Burning In Paris
Other videos showed barricades burning in the streets of Paris. The entrance to the city hall in Bordeaux, the regional capital of Nouvelle-Aquitaine, was set ablaze at one point.
At least one unit of firefighters switched sides and joined the protesters.
Almost 150 police officers and gendarmes have been injured, Interior Minister Garald Darmanin said on Thursday evening, calling this “absolutely unacceptable” and demanding harsh punishment for the attackers.
172 Detained, 190 Fires Set
Darmanin also told reporters that 172 people were detained for questioning about the “looting and arson” in Paris, and that 190 fires had been set in the French capital, 50 of which were still burning as of 10 pm local time.
In the southwestern city of Bordeux protests and clashes saw fire engulf the front door of the city’s town hall building. Although it remained unclear who exactly ignited the flames, the blaze was later extinguished by officials.
The interior minister blamed the “extreme left” and “black bloc” anarchists for the worst of the violence.
The outpouring of popular discontent was triggered by President Macron’s announcement that the retirement age will be raised from 62 to 64, starting next year. Macron insisted that the change was necessary, otherwise the pension system would go bankrupt within the next several years.
The Elysee Palace imposed the change without consulting lawmakers, who have been trying to deal with the controversial proposal since January. Protesters responded by calling on Macron to resign.
Appearing on TV on Wednesday, Macron said his only mistake was “failing to convince people” of the decision’s merits, but insisted he would not back down, even if that meant having to “shoulder unpopularity.”
While there is a constitutionally protected right to protest, Macron said, if the malcontents use violence, “then that is no longer democracy.”
Though heavily criticized due to the harsh coronavirus lockdowns and mandates, Macron easily won re-election in 2022, eventually defeating Marine Le Pen by a 17-point margin. The runoff election saw the lowest turnout since 1969.
Number Of Demonstrators, Two Estimates
Other media reports said:
The interior ministry said 1.089 million demonstrators took to the streets in France on Thursday, double the amount present at the previous manifestation on March 15; however, it was less than at the demonstrations on January 19, 31 and March 7, the French media reported. Then, the number of protesters reportedly amounted to around 1.2 million.
France’s largest union, CGT, reported that a record 3.5 million people took part in the protests across the whole country, according to the media.
The Paris demonstrations gathered around 120,000 people, according to the police, and 800,000, according to the union.
Clash Tear Gas
Clashes between black bloc radicals and law enforcement officers broke out in the French capital during today’s protests.
The police used tear gas to disperse protesters who managed to reach the Place de la Republique, demanding the area be cleared through loudspeakers. A water cannon was also seen at the scene.
During a demonstration in the city of Rouen, a 40-year-old woman had her thumb blown off by a grenade, local media reported. Her injuries were seen to by medical workers. The report said the injured woman was a college teacher and had two children.
Again on March 28
France’s leading unions announced that the 10th nationwide protest against the pension reform would take place on March 28, according to local TV.
Later in the day, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne commented on clashes between the demonstrators and police.
“The violence and damage we saw today are unacceptable. I am grateful to the police and emergency services that were mobilized,” Borne said on Twitter.
On March 16, Borne announced that the government had adopted a law on raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030 by invoking Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allowed the bill to get passed without parliamentary approval. The decision sparked a strong backlash, prompting people to take to the streets across the country.
The opposition tried to prevent the adoption of the law on Monday through a vote of no confidence in the French government, but failed to secure an absolute majority in the parliament twice.
There have been several nationwide strikes and hundreds of demonstrations in France within the last two months, with over 1 million people taking part in most of them. During the protests, clashes often broke out between the police and the protesters.
Macron Is Ready To Be Unpopular
Another media report said:
French President Emmanuel Macron has stood by his controversial pension reform in his first public remarks since pushing the measure through without the approval of lawmakers. He said the move, which has deepened ongoing unrest in the country, had been postponed for way too long by his predecessors.
“When I started working, there were ten million retirees; today there are 17 million, and by 2030 there will be 20 million,” he said. “Do you really think we can continue with the same rules?”
The president criticized his predecessors, saying he “could sweep the dust under the rug like many before,” but instead had opted to take the heat for the long-overdue changes.
“Do you think I enjoy doing this reform? No,” Macron said. “But there are a hundred ways to balance the accounts. This reform is not a luxury or pleasure, it is a necessity for the country. If I have to shoulder unpopularity today, I should shoulder it.”
Macron also brushed off his opponents’ accusations of being “undemocratic” by pushing through the divisive legislation without full parliamentary approval, invoking Article 49.3 of France’s constitution.
He instead accused protesters of being undemocratic, denouncing violent riots that have gripped the country. However, he expressed respect for “the labor unions who defend their point of view.”
“When groups, as they have this week, use violence without any rules because they are not happy with something, then it is no longer democracy,” Macron said.
In addition to mass strikes and widespread protests, the legislation also prompted multiple no-confidence motions against the government in the National Assembly, which is dominated by Macron’s centrist alliance. The cabinet managed to survive them all, with the closest motion falling nine votes short of toppling the government.
The controversial pension reform legislation is now pending review by the Constitutional Council before it can be signed into law. While the body can dismiss certain articles within a bill if it deems them unconstitutional, it rarely exercises this power.