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Fresh pension protests hit France before key court ruling

Macron is facing biggest challenge of his 2nd term over pension reform

By AFP - Apr 06,2023 - Last updated at Apr 06,2023

Protestors protect themselves from tear gas smoke with umbrellas during the 11th day of action after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the Article 49.3 of the constitution, in Nantes, western France, on Thursday (AFP photo)

PARIS — Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators hit French streets on Thursday for another day of protests and strikes against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform, as unions sought to maintain pressure ahead of a key court ruling.

Scuffles broke out in the afternoon in several cities, including in Paris where some radical protesters briefly set fire to the awning of a restaurant prized by the president.

Macron, currently on a visit to China, is facing the biggest challenge of his second term over his flagship pension overhaul, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and demanding people work longer for a full payout.

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 born in January still has drive.

"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."

Demonstrations were held across the country, with people brandishing placards or waving union flags from Paris to the southern cities of Montpellier and Marseille.

"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.

The CGT union claimed 400,000 people had turned up to the Paris protest.

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

Its red awning briefly caught fire, before the flames were put out.

In the western city of Nantes, several protesters threw rocks at police, who respondedwith tear gas, an AFP photographer saw.

But other rallies appeared largely peaceful with several featuring dancing demonstrators or brass bands.

In Paris, striking railway workers briefly stormed the former headquarters of the Credit Lyonnais Bank, a building that now houses companies including the BlackRock investment firm.


Losing steam? 


Unions have been hoping for a mass turnout on the 11th day of action since January, after signs the protest movement was starting to lose momentum.

Many of the protests turned violent after Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked on March 16 a controversial executive power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.

Rights groups have accused the police of disproportionate use of force in the weeks since, but the interior ministry has said it was responding to “ultra-left” radicals seeking to destroy public property.

The country’s rights ombudswoman Claire Hedon was expected to be in the Paris police command room during Thursday’s rallies.

France’s eight main labour unions said a meeting with Borne on Wednesday was a “failure” after she refused to discuss going back on the minimum retirement age of 64.

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

Macron is to remain for the rest of the week in China, where an aide denied the allegation of a “democratic crisis”, saying the pension change was in the president’s manifesto during his reelection campaign last year. 


Fewer strikers 


Police were expecting 600,000 to 800,000 people to protest nationwide on Thursday, and were to deploy 11,500 security forces to oversee the day.

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

But numbers were lower last week.

On Thursday, 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.

The education ministry said only eight percent of schoolteachers were on strike.

The government has argued that working longer is necessary to prevent the pension system from plunging into deficit.

In the rest of Europe, people mostly retire in their late 60s as life expectancy has increased.

Critics say the pension reform is unfair for people in tough jobs who start working early, as well as women who interrupt their careers to raise children.

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

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

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