PARIS — More than 1 million people demonstrated across France on Thursday against unpopular pension reforms, and violence erupted in some places as unions called new nationwide strikes and protests next week linked to the planned visit of King Charles III. coincided in France.
The Interior Ministry said the march in Paris – like numerous demonstrations elsewhere marred by violence – drew 119,000 people, a record for the capital during the pension protests. According to polls, most French people oppose President Emmanuel Macron’s bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, which he says is necessary to keep the system afloat.
Building on the strong turnout, unions were quick to call for fresh protests and strikes on Tuesday, when Britain’s king is due to visit Bordeaux on the second day of his trip to France. The heavy wooden door of Bordeaux’s elegant town hall was set on fire by members of an unauthorized demonstration on Thursday night and quickly destroyed, Sud Ouest newspaper said.
Nationwide, more than a million people took part in protest marches in cities and towns across the country on Thursday, the ministry said.
Home Secretary Gerald Darmanin, who visited police headquarters on Thursday evening as fires were still burning in some parts of Paris, assured that security “is not an issue” and that the British monarch would be “welcomed and well received”.
He said there was a “tremendous deterioration” in public buildings and commerce on Thursday, “far more significant than at previous demonstrations.”
“There are troublemakers, often from the extreme left, who want to overthrow the state and kill the police and eventually take over the institutions,” the minister said.
The demonstrations came a day after Macron further angered his critics by campaigning heavily for the retirement bill that forced his government through parliament without a vote.
“As the (President) tries to turn the page, this social and union movement confirms … the determination of the working class and youth world to secure the rollback of reform,” the eight unions that organized protests said in a statement. It called for localized measures this weekend and new nationwide strikes and protests on Tuesday.
Strikes have upended travel as protesters blocked train stations, Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, refineries and ports.
In Paris, street fighting between police and black-clad, masked groups who attacked at least two fast-food restaurants, a supermarket and a bank reflected the escalating violence and drew attention away from the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters.
Police, pelted with Molotov cocktails, objects and firecrackers, attacked several times and used tear gas to disperse rioters. A fog of tear gas fumes covered part of the Place de l’Opera where protesters gathered at the end of the march. According to Darmanin, there were about 1,500 radicals.
Violence marred other marches, particularly in the western cities of Nantes, Rennes and Lorient – where an administrative building was attacked and the police station courtyard burned and its windows broken – and in Lyon in the south-east.
Thursday’s nationwide protests were the ninth union-led demonstrations since January, when opponents hoped Parliament would reject Macron’s measure to raise the retirement age. But the government enforced it with a special constitutional measure.
In an interview on Wednesday, Macron refused to back down from his position that a new law was needed to fund pension funds. Opponents proposed other solutions, including higher taxes on the wealthy or corporations, which Macron said would hurt the economy. He insisted the government’s draft law raising the retirement age must be implemented by the end of the year.
Now the Constitutional Council has to approve the measure.
“We’re trying to say before the law comes into effect … that we have to find a way out, and we keep saying that the way out is to withdraw the law,” moderate CFDT union leader Laurent Berger said The Associated Press.
High-speed and regional trains, the Paris Metro and public transport systems in other major cities have been disrupted. Around 30% of flights at Paris Orly Airport have been cancelled.
The Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles, where the British monarch is to dine with Macron, were closed on Thursday due to strikes.
Violence, a recurring theme at protests, has increased in recent days. Darmanin said there were 12,000 security forces on French streets as of Thursday, including 5,000 in Paris.
The Education Ministry said in a statement that about 24% of teachers in elementary and middle schools quit their jobs on Thursday and 15% in secondary schools.
At Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, several hundred strikers took to the tracks to stop trains moving, waving flares and chanting “and we will go, and we will go to the point of retreat” and “Macron, go away.”
“This year our holidays might not be great,” said Maxime Monin, 46, who stressed that workers like him who work in public transport don’t get paid on strike days. “But I think it’s worth the sacrifice.”
In the northern Paris suburbs, several dozen union members blocked a bus depot in Pantin, preventing about 200 vehicles from getting off during rush hour.
Nadia Belhoum, a 48-year-old bus driver who took part in the campaign, criticized Macron’s decision to push through the higher retirement age.
“The President of the Republic … is not a king and he should listen to his people,” she said.