France Fears Pensions Protest Standoff Is Getting More Violent

Stuck in a highly charged standoff, France was bracing on Tuesday for another round of disruptive strikes, huge street demonstrations and potentially violent protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension overhaul.

A surge of violence on the fringes of last week’s largely peaceful marches was an ominous sign, ratcheting up the already high tension between Mr. Macron and opponents of the move to raise the legal age of retirement — labor unions, almost all opposition parties and over two-thirds of the French public.

The disturbances on Tuesday were wearingly familiar to many in France after three months of conflict: Roads and university entrances were blocked, trains and flights were canceled and gas stations in the west and the southeast faced shortages amid continuing disruptions at refineries and fuel depots.

Garbage was piled up in many neighborhoods of Paris. A planned visit by King Charles III of Britain was postponed last week.

Mr. Macron is now in the seemingly untenable position of trying to smooth tensions over even as he forges ahead with the most contentious policy of his second term: a gradual raise of the age when most workers can start collecting a government pension, if not a full one, to 64, from 62.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were expected to take to streets around the country. If their numbers surpass one million, it will be the fifth time since January.

Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest labor union, told reporters at a protest in Clermont-Ferrand, in central France, that it would not “be the last.”

“When you hear workers talk about their jobs,” he said, “you immediately understand that two more years isn’t possible.”

The fury has coalesced around not just Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul but also around his decision to push it through the lower house of Parliament without a vote, using a constitutional tool known as Article 49.3.

“The anger and resentment is at a level that I have rarely experienced,” François Hollande, a Socialist who was Mr. Macron’s predecessor — and whose approval ratings dropped to such depths during his presidency that he declined to run for re-election — said on Sunday.

Mr. Macron’s timing, Mr. Hollande told the BFMTV news channel, could not have been worse.

“When you launch a pension overhaul in a context of strong inflation, heavily reduced purchasing power and worries over a war in Ukraine,” he said, “that fuels incomprehension.”

The uptick in violence has been accompanied by accusations of police misbehavior and brutality. The government has countered that the security forces are facing increasingly brazen attacks on police officers or on public buildings carried out by protesters whom officials called radicalized.

“We respect strikes and demonstrations, but we will be particularly vigilant that they do not lead to new excesses,” Olivier Véran, the French government spokesman, said on Tuesday.

Tensions were further inflamed over the weekend after extremely violent clashes erupted in western France between thousands of riot police officers and environmental activists who were protesting the construction of water reservoirs that have become a flashpoint. Two protesters sustained critical injuries in circumstances that remain unclear and are still in a coma, according to the authorities.

“We are in a moment of total tension, with a very deep resentment, and anger that is rising,” Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, France’s largest labor union, told France 2 television on Monday.

“If democracy is just electing people, and then they do what they want for five years, it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the length of a presidential term in France.

The government and its opponents have appealed for calm, but they agree on little else. For labor unions, the increase in the legal age of retirement has always been a nonstarter. For Mr. Macron, it is necessary to balance the finances of the French pension system, which he says are unsustainable, even at the cost of chaotic unrest in the streets.

Labor unions say they are willing to discuss changes to labor laws and to the retirement system — without an age increase — only if the government retreats on the pension overhaul. The government says that it wants to discuss those issues but that the pension law has run its democratic course, and it rejected a request from Mr. Berger for what the union called a “mediation” to overcome the crisis.

A frustrated Mr. Berger quickly shot back, telling reporters ahead of the march in Paris, “I’ve had enough of these flat refusals of discussion and dialogue.”

An earlier gesture had come from Élisabeth Borne, Mr. Macron’s prime minister, who said she wanted to be more circumspect in using Article 49.3 and who is conducting a flurry of meetings over the next few weeks to chart the government’s next steps.

But the promise rang false for many opponents, who blame Mr. Macron’s inflexibility for the unrest, one of the most significant threats to the French president since the Yellow Vest movement that rocked his first term.

“The violence is his fault,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader and a founder of the France Unbowed party, said on Monday. “He is incapable of stopping it, incapable of containing it — he manages to do only one thing: amplify it.”

The standoff has grown increasingly bitter. A top lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party said she and her family had received death threats. The president of France’s lower house of Parliament, also an ally of Mr. Macron, said she had received a similar letter full of antisemitic and sexist threats.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said that 13,000 officers would be deployed across the country to provide security at the protests, including over 5,000 in Paris, where many shops and businesses on the march route were boarded up on Tuesday.

Mr. Darmanin said that since Mr. Macron had decided to push the bill through the lower house, dozens of buildings like town halls and police stations, as well as over a hundred constituency offices of lawmakers, had been targeted by vandalism and arson. Over 800 officers have been injured during protests.

Unions, lawyers, human rights groups and the Council of Europe say the authorities are also to blame for the increasing violence, accusing the police of employing excessive force or harsh tactics like large-scale corralling and unwarranted preventive arrests on peaceful demonstrators.

The police’s internal watchdog and disciplinary body has opened 17 investigations of misconduct related to the protests.

The pension law will stand unless the Constitutional Council, a body that reviews legislation to ensure that it conforms to France’s Constitution, strikes parts or all of it down. A ruling is expected in April.

“Macron’s belief — or hope — remains that he can gradually ‘change the subject’ to other more popular reforms,” Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in an analysis.

But, he added: “As things stand, the confrontation looks likely to continue for several weeks.”

Liz Alderman contributed reporting.

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