Angry protesters lit small fires and clashed with police clad in riot gear at the Place de la Concorde in central Paris on Thursday after President Emmanuel Macron pushed his pension reform bill through Parliament without a vote.
Several thousand people had spontaneously gathered there earlier in the day, after the government’s decision was announced, to demonstrate across the Seine River from the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament.
While the gathering was mostly peaceful throughout the afternoon, the situation took a more violent turn as night fell over the French capital and the police moved in to clear out the Place de la Concorde, a major square in Paris with a famed obelisk in the middle, not far from luxury hotels, the Tuileries gardens and the U.S. Embassy.
Protesters with covered faces threw cobblestones torn from the pavement at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons as they slowly pushed the diminishing crowds into surrounding streets. Some protesters set fire to wood construction fencing and heaps of trash, which has gone uncollected in many parts of Paris over the past week because of an ongoing strike by garbage workers.
The scene at the Place de la Concorde earlier in the day was much more jovial, but also seemed to embody how fuzzy the next stage of the battle may be for opponents of President Emmanuel Macron’s pension overhaul.
Thousands of protesters, along with some leftist legislators, gathered on the plaza, in the center of a giant traffic circle in the heart of the French capital. But the crowd was disorganized: Some people tried to generate momentum for a march on the nearby National Assembly, to no avail, while others chanted slogans or just stood by.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the prominent leftist politician, arrived and then quickly disappeared.
Hours after Mr. Macron’s decision to push through his plan to raise the retirement age without putting it to a vote in the National Assembly, many in the crowd expressed anger and vowed to continue fighting a measure that they say erodes a cherished part of France’s social safety net.
Union leaders said earlier on Thursday that they would soon call for more demonstrations, trying to extend what have already been eight nationwide mobilizations against the pension plan in the last two months.
With an absence of clear organization, it was unclear whether the protests would grow into the kind of unbridled social unrest that France has sometimes experienced — such as the Yellow Vest movement in 2018 and 2019 — or would fizzle.
But anger among opponents of the pension plan was growing. In the plaza, where union flags and balloons flew and music blared from loudspeakers, many people said they were committed to continue protesting against the plan — and against a government they see as having shown contempt for them.
“We will do spontaneous protests across France,” said Isabelle Mollaret, 47, a children’s librarian who held a sign that read, “Macron, you aren’t the boss.” She added, “We will fight him!”
A group of students chanted against Mr. Macron, calling him “president of the business bosses.” If students become deeply involved in the protest movement, that could be a bad sign for Mr. Macron’s government. In 2006, widespread student protests against a law introducing a youth jobs contract forced the government to backtrack and repeal the law — exactly what protesters are aiming for now.
Still, the feeling on the plaza was one of a festival, not an angry protest. A woman handed out chocolate. Students sang. A group of women from Attac, a French anti-globalization movement, known as the Rosies, changed the lyrics of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” to reflect an anti-Macron sentiment and led the crowd in a choreographed dance.
“We are relieved because we know the fight will continue,” said Lou Chesne, 36, an energy-efficiency researcher and one of the dancers.
He noted that the government hadn’t been able to collect enough votes in the Legislative Assembly to pass their law, and instead had to shoehorn it through with a special constitutional tool.
“They are isolated,” Mr. Chesne said.