Police and protesters clash in 12th day of French rallies against pension reform

Protesters opposing President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age to 64 marched Thursday in cities and towns around France, in a final show of anger before a decision on whether the measure meets constitutional standards.

Hours before the Paris march got underway, protesters piled bags of garbage in front of the Constitutional Council, which is expected to decide Friday whether to nix any or all parts of the legislation.

The trash piles were cleaned up but signalled the start of a new strike by garbage collectors, timed to begin with the nationwide protest marches. A previous strike last month left the streets of the French capital filled for days with mounds of reeking refuse.

Security forces guarded the Constitutional Council, located near a stretch of the Paris march path, and Paris Police Chief Laurent Nunez inspected the site. Government spokesperson Olivier Veran said the nine-member council needed calm to do its work.

“The mobilisation is far from over,” CGT union leader Sophie Binet, said at a trash incineration site south of Paris where several hundred protesters blocked garbage trucks. “As long as this reform isn’t withdrawn, the mobilization will continue in one form or another.”

A protester leads a demonstration Thursday in Rennes, western France.

CGT has been the backbone of the protest and strike movement challenging Macron’s plan to increase France’s retirement age from 62 to 64. Eight unions have organised protests since January in a rare voice of unity. Student unions have also joined in.

Dozens of railway workers marched down a Paris street of luxury boutiques, protesting outside Louis Vuitton and luxury conglomerate LVMH before moving to the nearby Champs-Elysees Avenue.

“We must get out of this situation. And the best way is the withdrawal of the law, either by the Constitutional Council or by mobilisation, which we want to maintain,” Fabien Villedieu from the Sud-Rail Union said. 

“We hope that there will be some intelligent people within Constitutional Council who will say, well, there are things happening in France. We have to find a way out”.

Macron had initially refused a demand to meet with unions, but during a state visit on Wednesday to the Netherlands proposed “an exchange” to discuss the follow-up to the Constitutional Council decision. There was no formal response to his offer.

Demonstrators march in Rennes, western France.

Thousands of people marched in Toulouse, in the southwest, and elsewhere. In Rennes, in western France, firefighters were seen in a video on BFM TV distinguishing flames of a burning car.

Unions hoped for a strong turnout Thursday to pressure both the government and the members of the Constitutional Council tasked with studying the text of the pension reform plan. 

Critics challenged the government’s choice to include the pension plan in a budget bill, which significantly accelerated the legislative process. The government’s decision to skirt a parliamentary vote using special constitutional powers transformed opponents’ anger into fury.

Polls consistently show a majority of French people are opposed to the pension reform.

“The contention is strong, anchored in the people,” CFDT union head Laurent Berger said. If the measure is promulgated, “there will be repercussions,” he warned, noting the “silent anger” among the union rank and file.

Protests and labour strikes often hobble public transportation in Paris, but Metro trains were mostly running Thursday smoothly. The civil aviation authority asked airports in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes to reduce air traffic by 20 per cent.

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