New Day of Strikes in France as Pension Anger Persists

Workers went on strike and demonstrators marched around France on Thursday for the first big day of protests since President Emmanuel Macron shoved an increase of the retirement age to 64 from 62 through Parliament without a full vote, a test of the unions’ ability to maintain their pressure and the president’s ability to weather it.

Mr. Macron’s decision last week to force through the pension bill and the subsequent failure to remove his government with a no-confidence vote ended the parliamentary battle over the overhaul, and it set the stage for the next phase: An increasingly bitter stalemate.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were expected to take to the streets around the country for the ninth day of nationwide protests since January. One in five teachers were on strike, train service was disrupted nationwide, protesters blocked ports and roads, and famous tourist spots, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the nearby Château de Versailles, were shuttered.

“The government was counting on the movement losing steam,” Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail, or C.G.T., France’s second-largest union, told reporters at the protest in Paris. But, he added, “The resolve is still very strong.”

The size of the protests on Thursday will be closely watched. Mr. Macron is hoping to ride out them out until they fizzle so that the pension changes can be implemented by the end of the year, while the united front of labor unions that has spearheaded the marches wants to sustain pressure from the street and with strikes.

“It was a social crisis, and we have moved to a political crisis — one might even say a crisis of the regime, because the president is increasingly isolated,” said Karel Yon, a sociologist and expert on French unions and social movements at the University of Paris Nanterre.

Mr. Macron’s decision to push the bill through Parliament has kept the labor movement united and fueled the anger that has energized the protests, Mr. Yon said. He noted that blockages of factories or roads, nighttime youth demonstrations, and other sporadic and sometimes more radical actions were now emerging “outside of the traditional union framework,” without undermining it so far.

Many subway lines in the Paris metro were running at half capacity or less on Thursday, and protesters blocked road access to a terminal at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, northeast of the capital. Students also blocked or demonstrated in front of dozens of high schools and universities.

Many oil refineries and fuel depots around the country were still blocked or shut down, with growing fears that gas stations could run dry despite efforts by authorities to commandeer workers in certain areas. Electricity workers said that they had briefly cut power from symbolic locations — like the presidency’s official summer residence in southern France.

In a television interview on Wednesday, Mr. Macron said his only regret was his inability to convince a skeptical France that the age increase was urgently necessary to stave off future deficits in the pension system — an urgency that his opponents firmly dispute.

“There aren’t 36 solutions,” Mr. Macron said. “This reform is necessary.”

Labor unions organized several mass marches around the country in the months before Mr. Macron rammed through the pension changes, and smaller, scattered and spontaneous protests broke out in cities around the country afterward. Many were peaceful, but others were marred by burned trash, vandalized property and clashes with riot police.

On Wednesday Mr. Macron warned that he would not tolerate any “excesses.”

About 12,000 police officers were deployed across France on Thursday to secure the protests, including 5,000 in Paris. At midday, French television showed protesters in Rennes and Nantes clashing with riot police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

The government’s response to the protests has also fueled accusations of police brutality, large-scale corralling of demonstrators, and unwarranted preventive arrests — recriminations that were familiar during the Yellow Vest protests that rocked France for weeks during Mr. Macron’s first term.

Claire Hédon, France’s defender of rights — an official ombudsman who citizens can petition if they believe their rights have been violated — warned in a statement this week that she was “worried” by videos circulating on social media and by reports of police misconduct, and would “remain vigilant.”

Mr. Yon, the sociologist, said that the more radical demonstrations that had emerged over the past week were reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests — a spontaneous movement that emerged outside of a union or political framework because of anger over a fuel tax but that morphed into much broader and sometimes violent anger.

Mr. Macron’s refusal to change course despite the unpopularity of the pension overhaul has “reactivated the feeling of a disconnect with the state and its institutions” that was prevalent during the Yellow Vest crisis, Mr. Yon said.

And, he added, “the Yellow Vests were the only social movement of the past years that made the government back down.”

While labor unions have kept a united front, the prospect of more radical actions holds the potential to divide them. “We have to keep public opinion with us until the end,” Laurent Berger, the head of the C.F.D.T., or French Democratic Confederation of Labor, told reporters at the protest in Paris. “We need nonviolent actions that don’t disrupt citizens’ daily lives.”

Opponents of Mr. Macron have also filed legal challenges against his pension overhaul. While the changes have now become law, they will be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which examines legislation to ensure it complies with the Constitution. A ruling is expected within the next month.

Even if the law stands, Mr. Macron’s party, Renaissance, and its centrist allies have only a slim majority in Parliament, and the dispute over pensions has added to doubts about his ability to get his policies enacted.

The government has already been forced to postpone an immigration bill that was supposed to come up for debate in the Senate, France’s upper house, next week, because it was unclear whether a majority of lawmakers would back it.

But Mr. Macron’s allies say they are confident that the turbulence is temporary.

Sacha Houlié, a Renaissance lawmaker who chairs the National Assembly’s law committee, acknowledged that the government had failed to convince people about the merits of the pension law and was hoping to defuse the crisis by shifting to less divisive issues, like enshrining the right to abortion in the Constitution or improving end-of-life care.

But Mr. Houlié also noted that the government had gotten other laws through the lower house despite its weak majority, like a new nuclear investment plan that was adopted with a large majority this week, one day after the cabinet narrowly survived the no-confidence vote.

“There are political difficulties that are significant, there is a social crisis which is important,” Mr. Houlié said. “But the idea that we’re now blocked is false.”

Mr. Macron now wants his prime minister to seek out lawmakers from other parties willing to work with his majority on certain bills, but opponents did not seem eager to cooperate.

“Emmanuel Macron has brought the country into a political and social dead end,” Olivier Faure, the head of the Socialist Party, told the newspaper Libération on Thursday. “Who wants to govern with him?”

Constant Méheut and Catherine Porter contributed reporting.

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