French unions are holding a new day of nationwide strikes Tuesday to try to force President Emmanuel Macron to reverse his decision to push through unpopular pension reforms.
As concerns grow over mounting violence, labor organizations have blamed the government for creating an explosive situation. Protests on Thursday ended in chaos, with hardcore fringes clashing with riot police. Further scuffles have taken place in the days since.
The backlash against raising the minimum retirement age by two years to 64 has escalated since Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on March 16 that Article 49.3 of the constitution would be used to avoid a vote on the bill in the National Assembly.
Since then, there have been 114 acts of vandalism on the local offices of members of parliament, 128 cases of damage to public buildings and 2,179 arson attacks, while almost 900 police officers have been injured, according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
“Radicalized elements from the ultra left and extreme left are trying to take union marches hostage,” Darmanin told a news conference. “They come to cause damage, to injure, and to kill the police. Their aims have nothing to do with pension reform.”
The minister said security forces consider there’s a very significant risk of breaches of public order on Tuesday and added that an unprecedented 13,000 officers are being deployed across the country, including 5,500 in the French capital.
The police have also come under scrutiny during the protests, with unions, Amnesty International and Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic warning against excessive use of force. Darmanin said 17 internal investigations are ongoing into police behavior at the marches.
The head of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, called on the government to hit pause in what he said was a dangerous climate.
“We take a month and a half, we say ‘OK, the 64 age limit won’t apply,’ and we do mediation,” he told France Inter radio ahead of Tuesday’s protests. “Then we get round the table and look at the question of work, pensions and where there can be a social compromise.”
Backing down would raise questions over Macron’s pledge to balance the books and spur the labor market with pro-business reforms. The French Pension Advisory Council estimated the current system could cost the public finances at least 0.5 percent of GDP annually over the coming decade.
However, pushing ahead by enacting the law risks a prolonged conflict and further splintering parliament, where he has already lost his absolute majority and relies on opposition lawmakers to pass texts in a conventional manner.
The president has attempted to appease the situation by promising to account more for workers in future reforms, including with a measure to force companies to share more of their profits when conducting share buybacks. Borne has said she is open to talks with opposition and union leaders, and aims to avoid using Article 49.3 again for anything apart from budget bills.
Surveys regularly show French people want Macron to cancel the reform. According to an Elabe poll after he spoke on television March 22, only 24 percent consider him to be a good president and 60 percent approve of the protests. A recent Ifop poll showed he’s also losing voters to the far right.
“With no clear solution in sight, Macron’s troubles underscore the difficulty of containing spending without triggering a backlash.”
“So far, activity appears to have held up well and we forecast that France escaped an economic contraction in the first quarter. But as strikes and protests continue, adding to the tightening of monetary conditions and heightened tensions in the financial sector, risks to 2Q23 are clearly to the downside,” said Bloomberg economist Maeva Cousin.
Burning trash on the streets of Paris after refuse collectors joined the strikes has become a defining image of the conflict.
Violence at an unrelated protest over the weekend against the construction of water reservoirs has also added to the concerns of business leaders.
“The image of France has never been better—it’s the place where there’s been the most investment in Europe in the last years,” Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, the chairman of business lobby Medef, said Monday on France Info radio. “But it’s fragile and if this violence lasts and the garbage isn’t collected in Paris, yes it could discourage investors.”
With assistance from Marie Patino, Jenny Che and Valentine Baldassari/Bloomberg