Macron challenged by new strikes as he digs in on pensions

Tribune Content Agency

PARIS — French unions held more strikes against French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform of the country’s pension system on Thursday, a day after he went on television to insist he won’t back down and likened protesters to the rebels who stormed the U.S. Capitol.

Ground transportation, flights and refineries were impacted as anger over raising the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62 shows no sign of receding more than two months after the start of a series of walkouts and marches. Unions called for another day of nationwide protests on March 28.

Some of the protests turned violent on Thursday, with some 149 police officers injured across France, often from incidents “coming from far-left groups,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on French television. More than 140 fires were lit by protesters in Paris streets, Darmanin added. The gate in front of Bordeaux city hall was also burned.

In perhaps the most emblematic sign of the movement, thousands of tons of trash have piled up on the streets of Paris, rendering some sidewalks impassable. Garbage collectors plan to continue their strike through Monday.

The ninth day of action against the pension overhaul saw 1.09 million people turn out across the country, according to the Interior Ministry.

The portion of public-sector workers joining in walkouts was up sharply on Thursday from a week earlier, though well below its peak on the first day of protests in mid-January, preliminary government figures showed.

Macron, who had largely left his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, to bear the brunt of pushing the pension reform through parliament, appeared on French TV on Wednesday and argued the overhaul is needed for the sake of public finances.

He further stoked outrage on the streets and on social media when he compared protesters to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and those who invaded the Brazilian parliament last year. His mistake was that he didn’t manage to convince the French people, he said.

The president added: “We cannot accept rebels and factions.”

Polls suggest most French people oppose the plan to raise the retirement age, backing labor unions, which are especially critical of the decision to use a constitutional provision that allowed him to bypass a vote in the National Assembly.

“Macron doesn’t listen to anybody. He acts like a monarch,” said Marc Stalin, a member of the CGT union and retired railways worker who participated in Thursday’s protest. He vowed to continue demonstrating. “There is no other option.”

A Harris Interactive survey of 1,100 adults carried out on March 17-20 for Challenges magazine shows 61% consider it legitimate to pursue strikes after he resorted to the so-called Article 49.3.

Even among those who want Macron to back down, there’s little hope that he’ll change course, however. A survey of 1,007 adults carried out by pollster Ifop on March 21-22 for Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper showed 79% think the government won’t abandon the reform in the face of further protests.

Macron has so far ruled out snap elections, reshuffling his government or amending the reform to quell tensions.

“We aren’t seeing any attempt or dream to gain power or to change the government: It’s an opposition movement,” said Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist who has worked on social movements. “There’s thirst for democracy and opposition to a world organized by technocrats, and anger from the feeling of being despised.”


(Bloomberg News writers William Horobin, Francois de Beaupuy, Prejula Prem, Zoe Schneeweiss and Benoit Berthelot contributed to this story.)