Protests rage on as Macron refuses to budge on pension reform

Latest unrest came after Macron’s government narrowly survived two no-confidence motions in parliament on Monday

By
AFP
Protesters hold a banner and placards depicting French Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt (L), French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne (C) and French President Emmanuel Macron at Place de la Republique during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Paris on March 21, 2023. AFP
Protesters hold a banner and placards depicting French Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt (L), French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne (C) and French President Emmanuel Macron at Place de la Republique during a demonstration, a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Paris on March 21, 2023. AFP

PARIS: Following his government narrowly surviving votes of no confidence, French President Emmanuel Macron reassured his supporters that he would stand by his beleaguered prime minister amidst political turmoil with calls from opponents to reshuffle the government. 

Ignoring calls from opponents, Macron said there would be no government reshuffle, no fresh parliamentary elections and no referendum on his controversial pension reform, even in the face of widespread protests that have brought millions into the streets.

Police arrested another 234 people in Paris on Monday night during clashes between protesters and security forces, with several groups burning trash bins, bikes and other objects.

The latest unrest came after Macron’s centrist government narrowly survived two no-confidence motions in parliament on Monday, clearing the way for the legislation raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 to enter into force.

But anger over the government’s decision to invoke a notorious constitutional power to force the reform through the National Assembly without a vote last week has dismayed many ruling party MPs and caused more fury on the streets.

"The reform is adopted but it is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of French people," political scientist Jerome Jaffre told France Inter radio on Tuesday.

"That’s a source of problems, of bitterness, and it’s far from being resolved."

There were also clashes in eastern cities Dijon and Strasbourg overnight, while protesters blocked traffic in other parts of the country.

Arbitrary arrests?

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen warned Macron on Tuesday that he was pushing the country to the verge of a "social explosion".

"Consciously the government is creating all the conditions for a social explosion, as if they were looking for that," Le Pen told AFP in an interview, adding that she would not help "extinguish the fire" of public anger over the legislation.

Several hundred people were already gathered in central Paris by early Tuesday evening, promising to "keep up the pressure".

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police officers of having made arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle anti-government protests.

They cited as proof the fact that the vast majority of detained demonstrators were released after a few hours, without any charges.

"Criminal law is being used by the government to deter demonstrators from exercising their right to demonstrate," said Raphael Kempf, a lawyer specialising in human rights and freedoms.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez rejected the allegations, telling the BFMTV broadcaster: "There are no unjustified arrests".

Macron’s office said the president would give a live television interview at 1:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Wednesday.

All signs Tuesday were that he will seek to defend what was to be a flagship reform, while seeking fresh momentum for his second term, which still has more than four years to run.

At Tuesday’s meeting with political allies at the presidential palace, Macron called for fresh ideas in the "next two to three weeks" with a view to adopting "a change in method and reform agenda", according to a participant who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

‘Necessary transformations’

Under-fire Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has refused to resign, telling AFP that she was "determined to continue to carry out the necessary transformations in our country with my ministers".

As well as the political crisis sparked by the law, the government is also contending with growing public order problems and the risk of economic disruption.

Spontaneous protests by young people have seen clashes with police nightly since last week. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there had been 1,200 unauthorised demonstrations since last Thursday, "some of them violent".

Meanwhile strikes and blockades at oil refineries could create fuel shortages.

Around six percent of petrol stations throughout France have run out of petrol or diesel, or both.

"I’ve been to most stations," 18-year-old high school student Christos Chatts told AFP in the southern port city of Marseille. "They’re either closed, or there’s no fuel, or there are monster queues."

The streets of Paris also remain strewn with uncollected rubbish after a two-week strike by garbage workers.

Another round of strikes and protests organised by trade unions for Thursday could again bring public transport to a standstill.

A survey on Sunday showed Macron’s personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2019.