French pensions protests falter despite anger

AFP , Tuesday 6 Jun 2023

French protests against President Emmanuel Macron's pensions overhaul began to run out of steam on Tuesday with lower numbers taking to the streets and leaders questioning the future of the movement.

 People demonstrate France s pensions reform
Nearly two thousand people demonstrate on the 14th day of action after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution, in Lille, northern France, on June 6, 2023. AFP


Hundreds of thousands of people protested across France for the 14th day of demonstrations since January to oppose the reform, with some cities seeing angry clashes, but numbers were well down on the peak of the movement.

Macron signed the legislation into law in April, raising the pension age to 64 from 62 after the government used a controversial but legal mechanism to avoid a vote in parliament on the bill.

The later retirement age, which seeks to bolster France's troubled long-term finances, was a banner pledge of Macron's second and final term in office.

The new head of the hard-left CGT union, Sophie Binet, said as the protest in Paris got underway: "After six months the unions are still united and the level of anger, frustration and motivation is high."

"I hear people say sometimes that everything is over, but it's not true."

Laurent Berger, the head of the more moderate CFDT union, however, acknowledged that the "match is coming to an end" and Tuesday's protest would be "clearly the last on pensions in this format".

"I'd love to tell you that we're capable of mobilising another two million people next week. That's not true, because you can't lie to workers.

"Unfortunately this reform has been enacted," he said.

Throughout France, figures given by unions and police in cities for turnout plunged to their lowest levels yet.

In Paris, 300,000 people took to the streets, according to the CGT, while it said 900,000 protested nationwide, its lowest such estimate since the protests began.

Official figures, always much lower than those of the unions, were expected later. The nationwide peak was on March 7, when 1.28 million were counted by police.

- 'No Games' -

The figurehead of the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) party Jean-Luc Melenchon insisted the "struggle will continue" while admitting it was not clear "under what form".

Seeking to show the potential power of union action, around 60 members of the CGT briefly occupied the offices of the organising committee for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games in northern Paris, chanting there would be "no Games" if the law was not pulled.

Michel Moulbach, a building worker in the northeastern city of Lille, said the movement had allowed people to express anger "but you need to be realistic".

With summer holidays on the horizon "it will be hard not to take a pause."

Clashes were reported in the southeastern city of Lyon, a flashpoint in previous demonstrations, where projectiles were thrown at security forces, local authorities said.

Police meanwhile used tear gas in clashes with protesters in the western city of Nantes, another flashpoint, while clashes were also reported in Toulouse in the south and Rennes in the west.

In contrast to March and April when rubbish piled up in the streets of Paris and most long-distance trains were cancelled, only limited disruption is expected on transport or public services.

Around a third of flights were cancelled at Paris Orly airport.

- 'Increase in violence' -

Parts of the pensions overhaul, including the key increase in the retirement age, were printed Sunday in France's official journal, meaning they are now law.

Opponents are pinning their hopes on a motion put forward by the small Liot faction in parliament -- broadly backed by the left -- to repeal the law and reverse the increased retirement age.

Parliament speaker Yael Braun-Pivet, a member of Macron's party but officially neutral, was to rule on Thursday whether a vote could go ahead.

Most observers expect her to declare the bid to be unconstitutional.

Having faced down the biggest protests in a generation to push through the changes, Macron appears intent on moving on, having concluded that voters now view the changes as inevitable and support for the demonstrations is waning.

The president Tuesday refused to comment on the issue as he attended commemorations for the 79th anniversary of D-Day, saying that "this is a moment... to celebrate the unity of the nation".

The president's personal ratings are also moving higher again, having plunged to near-record depths in March and April.

"I will not go so far as to say that the page is turned, there is no clean slate," one minister told AFP, asking not to be named. "It's not forgotten but we're going to start looking forwards again."

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