Protests in France: burning containers against Macron

Protests in France: burning containers against Macron

Thousands have been taking to the streets in France for days. Their anger is directed at the unpopular pension reform – and the government’s actions in the process.

protesters in Paris.

Wave of outrage: The way the government decided on the reform is met with displeasure in France Photo: getty

PARIS taz | For days, thousands of people have been demonstrating in numerous French cities against the way in which the state leadership wants to push through its fiercely contested pension reform. So without a vote in the National Assembly with a constitutionally legal abbreviation that has been criticized as anti-parliamentary. When the government declared the debate over on Thursday, around 10,000 people took to the streets in the capital Paris alone.

Angered by what they saw as a democratic refusal by the government, they spontaneously gathered on the Place de la Concorde, just opposite the National Assembly. The police finally cleared the place – with lots of tear gas. Around 300 demonstrators were arrested, and only a few of them were subsequently prosecuted.

The same scenario with thousands of outraged citizens could be observed the next day, although the authorities had banned rallies in this huge square next to the Tuileries and also the neighboring Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Similar rallies, mostly without permission and without a call from unions or parties, were held across the country. In some places, street barricades were erected or roundabouts occupied. Just like in the course of the yellow vest protest movement in 2018/2019. Accordingly, it is hardly surprising that, in addition to the red vests of the CGT union, there were again many yellow safety vests at the actions.

A wave of indignation is sweeping through France, directed primarily against the government. Demonstrations also took place over the weekend. Since a massive police presence in the capital wanted to prevent any rally in the center, a demonstration took place on Saturday evening in the south, starting from the Place d’Italie. In the course of this, there were several fires, which manifested themselves in burning garbage containers and building material. During the subsequent police operation to break up the rally, 76 people were arrested.

Unions have lost control

It is striking that the united trade union federations, which had previously organized resistance to the government bill, appear to have largely lost control of the movement. Their own base is also urging them to go “further” in the face of the intransigent and uncompromising government. The two chairmen of the CGT and the CFDT, Philippe Martinez and Laurent Berger, constantly assert in the media that they have repeatedly warned the state leadership – most recently in a joint letter to President Emmanuel Macron – against taking workers and the people with them to provoke a fait accompli to an escalation or even violent confrontations. The responsibility for this therefore clearly lies with the government.

A sign of this radicalization are also tougher strike actions. At the weekend, the Normandy oil refinery, which was already occupied, ceased production, and the others are likely to follow suit. Strikes continue on the railways and in the seaports, and there are still failures in air traffic. A general strike has been announced for Thursday, March 23rd. It would not be the first time that a law that has been passed has been stopped by the streets after immense pressure: In 2006, after violent protests by young people, President Jacques Chirac renounced an employment contract for young professionals (CPE) passed by Parliament.

On French television, several ministers and spokespeople for the governing coalition defended the procedure in parliament like this: There the reform had been decided in a constitutional and consequently “democratic way”, the opponents would now have to understand and accept their defeat. Such statements are an additional affront. “Democracy is now taking to the streets,” said historian Stéphane Sirot, a specialist in social movements, on BFMTV. He added wryly: “Stalin also invoked a constitution, and so did the People’s Republic of China. But they can’t exactly be regarded as model democracies!” The resistance to the very controversial pension reform and the great anger at the government’s actions cannot be ended with a snap of the fingers.

President Macron must have been aware of that when he asked his government on Thursday to implement Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which was frowned upon as undemocratic, when it was clear that he could not expect a majority of votes in the National Assembly for the reform to raise the retirement age. In his political poker game, he had staked everything on the support of the conservatives from Les Républicains (LR). But all the enticements, pleas and threats were not enough to secure a majority.

It now also depends on these LR deputies whether or not the government will be overthrown in a vote of confidence on Monday. Although the latter is more likely: In the event of new elections, these MPs in particular have reason to fear that they will not be re-elected. Their fear is shared by the “Macronists” of the three parties Renaissance (formerly En marche), Horizons (ex-Prime Minister Édouard Philippe) and MoDem (François Bayrou), who often complain that they are insulted and threatened in their constituencies.

The winners of the protests are left and right-wing parties

Possible winners in possible new elections would be, on the one hand, the left-wing parties, who have left no stone unturned to counter the government policy. Above all, the leader of the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, knows how to take the anti-reform mood onto the streets.

Another beneficiary of a snap election, on the other hand, would be the extreme right. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is also opposed to the reform, but apart from the motion of no confidence that has now been submitted, it has done practically nothing to resist. On the contrary: while Nupes, the parliamentary left, was always trying to stop the pension reform through countless amendments and calls for order, the RN was conspicuously reticent.

The party has also not called its supporters onto the streets. Her obvious calculation: to hold back, always trying to get a serious coat of paint – and then to capture the voices of anger. This strategy even seems to work: So came a survey by the Ifop Institute recently came to the conclusion that Le Pen most embodied the opposition to the pension reform – and not Mélenchon. For Le Pen, this is tailwind, also and especially with a view to the presidential election in 2027 – when Macron can no longer stand after two terms in office.

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