France is bracing for fresh demonstrations against Emmanuel Macron’s contested pensions reform next week, testing the president’s handling of a backlash that has spiralled into a political crisis.
A fresh day of national strikes called by unions is set to take place on Tuesday after spontaneous protests have occasionally turned violent in recent days, prompting the British royal house to postpone a planned state visit by King Charles.
Though unconnected to the broader pushback over Macron’s move to raise the retirement age, protesters clashed with police on Saturday in unauthorised demonstrations near the village of Sainte-Soline in western France over plans to build a water reservoir, which is opposed by environmentalists.
A protester and a police officer were seriously injured. Demonstrators threw projectiles and set vans on fire, while officers rode quad bikes to try to control crowds in the fields and used tear gas and stun grenades, leading to fresh criticism from some opposition politicians over heavy-handed police tactics.
Protests against Macron’s unpopular pension plans have taken a more unpredictable turn since the government bypassed a parliamentary vote in mid-March to pass the law, leading to a backlash on the streets that is turning into a political headache for the government.
After more than 1mn people took part in marches across France last Thursday, clashes with police broke out on the sidelines. Protesters set fire to uncollected garbage in central Paris, leading police to fire tear gas and deploy its more heavy-duty motorbike brigade to control crowds.
Labour unions and protesters have called on Macron to withdraw his reform, which will raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and require people to work for 43 years to qualify for a full pension. Laurent Berger, the leader of the moderate CFDT union, urged the government on Friday to “hit pause” on its plans, saying the spiralling violence on the fringes of demonstrations was worrying.
Macron has stood firm, arguing the overhaul is necessary for the pensions system to remain viable. Government spokesman Olivier Véran said on Sunday there would be no room for renegotiating the retirement age, and called for calm.
“We cannot let this idea that somehow violence is a justifiable or understandable response take root,” Véran told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
French police have been accused by rights groups and legal campaigners of resorting to excess force during the protests.
More than 1,200 people have been detained since March 16 when protesters began to take to the streets more assiduously, and several French rights groups have said many arrests were made unnecessarily and without legal foundation. They have cited instances of passers-by being caught up in a police swoop on demonstrators, while most people were released after a night in jail with no follow-up.
The French police’s internal affairs body has launched 11 investigations into alleged abuses, interior minister Gérald Darmanin said on Friday.
Darmanin defended the police response at Sainte-Soline, however, saying it had been proportional. He blamed extreme left activists among the thousands of demonstrators at the planned reservoir site for the violence. Local police said they had confiscated knifes and machetes before the protest kicked off.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and members of his “France Unbowed” party who were at Sainte-Soline, said police had used stun grenades indiscriminately.
On a political level, the public backlash has so far benefited Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) party, an Ifop poll in Le Journal du Dimanche showed. Support for the RN would grow by 7 percentage points to 26 per cent if parliamentary elections were held now, compared with its 19.2 per cent score in elections last June.
Support for Macron’s Renaissance party, which does not have a majority in the lower house but still holds the most seats, would recede by nearly 5 percentage points to 22 per cent, the poll showed.
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