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France 24
France 24
Benjamin DODMAN

‘Democracy at stake’: French protesters vent fury at Macron over pension push

A montage of President Emmanuel Macron as the "Sun King" Louis XIV at a protest in Paris on March 23, 2023. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

French protesters downed their tools and marched once again in Paris and other cities on Thursday, galvanised by President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to ram his deeply unpopular pension reform through parliament without a vote, in what critics have branded a “denial of democracy”.

More than two months into a bitter battle that has roiled the nation, opponents of Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age showed no sign of relenting, with the number of protesters on the rise again after dipping in recent weeks.

The rallies marked the ninth day of nationwide strikes and protests, and the first since Macron ordered his prime minister to use special executive powers to bypass parliament, turning an already festering dispute into a political and institutional crisis.

In the French capital, several hundred thousand protesters turned out, setting off from the symbolic protest hub of Bastille. Many held posters with a montage of Macron dressed in full regalia in the manner of “Sun King” Louis XIV, accompanied by the slogan “Méprisant de la République” (contemptuous of the Republic).

“We’re fed up with a president who thinks he’s Louis XIV, who doesn’t listen, who thinks he’s the only one to know what’s good for this country,” said Michel Doneddu, a 72-year-old pensioner from the Paris suburbs. He held up a placard that read, “Jupiter, the people will bring you back down to Earth”, a reference to a nickname commonly used by critics of Macron’s lofty, arrogant manner.

“We’ve had our share of useless presidents, but at least in the past they knew when to listen and when to back down,” Doneddu added. “But Macron, he’s on another planet.”

Macron's use of article 49.3 of the French constitution to force his pension reform through parliament has incensed his opponents. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The march included many first-time protesters, like 32-year-old student Lou, who said she turned out “not so much for the pension reform but because our democracy is at stake”.

Clashes broke out and fires were lit as the rally made its way towards the Opéra Garnier in the heart of Paris, mirroring the violence that has gripped the country since the government used Article 49.3 of the constitution to force Macron's reform through parliament.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said more than 120 police officers were injured on Thursday alone in clashes across France, with unrest sweeping several Breton cities and protesters setting fire to the porch of the city hall in Bordeaux.

‘Our democracy is broken’

The latest round of protests came a day after Macron broke his silence on the bitter pension dispute, saying he was prepared to accept unpopularity because the bill was “necessary” and “in the general interest of the country”.

Striking a defiant tone, Macron said he had “no regrets” except one: he acknowledged that his government had failed to persuade the public of the need for a reform that comes on the heels of the Covid-19 pandemic and with French households battered by galloping inflation.

That the government has failed to convince the French is an understatement. Polls have consistently shown that more than two thirds of the country oppose the pension overhaul. A broad majority of the French has also expressed support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and rubbish collection, burying the streets of Paris – the world’s most visited city – under stinking piles of trash.

Mountains of rubbish have formed across the French capital, sometimes echoing the barricades of past revolutions. © Benoît Tessier, Reuters

Macron’s own approval rating has taken a hit, slumping to just 28% according to an Ifop poll last week – its lowest level since the Yellow Vest crisis. The poll was conducted before the president further enraged his critics by ordering his prime minister to trigger Article 49.3.

While Borne’s government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly on Monday, surveys suggest the French were hoping for a different outcome altogether. Two in three voters backed the no-confidence motion, according to an Elabe poll, including – astonishingly – a slim majority (51%) of people who backed Macron in last year’s presidential runoff.

At the Paris rally on Thursday, many said they voted for Macron less than 12 months ago, though stressing that they did so to keep the far right out of power – and not in support of his promised pension overhaul. Rejection of his planned reform, they added, was precisely the reason voters later stripped him of a majority in parliament.

“Our democracy is broken, it forces us into choosing a lesser evil,” said 21-year-old student Maude. “And even when parliament and the country are opposed to it, the government can still go ahead and do what it likes.”

‘Death sentence’

Borne’s minority government is hardly the first to use Article 49.3, which has been triggered 100 times since 1962. Seldom, however, has it been used to ram through a reform of such scope and so vehemently rejected by the public.

At the heart of the pension overhaul is a contentious plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffen requirements for a full pension, which the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics. 

Unions, however, say the proposed measures are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs, as well as women with discontinuous careers.

The perceived inequity of Macron’s pension reform has touched a raw nerve in a country that has the word “égalité” (equality) enshrined in its motto. Talk of its unfairness has been a key driver of the mass protests that have brought millions to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the country, drawing from well beyond the ranks of the left.

>> ‘Not just about pensions’: French protesters see threat to social justice in Macron’s reform

“Raising the retirement age is a death sentence for us,” said Julien, a 40-year-old rubbish collector, marching in Paris with dozens of striking colleagues.

“I’ve been doing this job for 10 years and that’s more than enough to wear anyone out,” he said. “Some of my colleagues died during Covid. We were celebrated at the time, and now this is how they thank us!”

Rubbish collectors and sewage workers gather at Place de la Bastille in Paris for the start of Thursday's rally. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Like Julien, railway worker Ragnar said Macron’s previous government had already made it more difficult for workers to retire early owing to the particularly exhausting nature of their jobs, by striking down certain criteria of “pénibilité” (arduousness), such as lifting heavy loads or working with chemical substances.

“We need to amplify our strikes and protests, block the country, make sure there isn’t a single drop of fuel left in petrol stations. It’s the only way to stop the government,” said the 23-year-old member of the SUD trade union.

The French president has achieved at least one thing, his colleague Nathalie quipped: “He’s united every single union against him – that’s quite a feat!”

“The fact that every single one of France’s unions is opposed to the reform should be cause for reflection,” added 49-year-old Audrey, a financial controller and member of the white-collar CGC union. “Our union is all about dialogue, but the government is not interested in talking to us.”

‘The battle in parliament may be over – but we’re not done’

Macron’s criticism of unions during his lunchtime television interview on Wednesday drew angry responses, most notably from the head of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, who scolded the French president for seeking to portray the pension dispute as a tussle “between one responsible (man) and a group of irresponsibles”.

Berger’s union – France’s largest – notably supported the last reform of France’s pension system under former president François Hollande in 2014, which increased the number of working years required to qualify for a full pension but did not push back the minimum retirement age. This time, however, it has banded with more radical groups in a rare alliance.

In the build-up to Thursday’s nationwide rallies, union members stepped up their campaign of barrages and disruptions, briefly blocking train stations, bus depots and motorways, including the main road leading to Charles-de-Gaulle airport near Paris, France’s largest hub, where fuel supplies had become “critically low” due to continuing strikes at oil refineries across the country.

Targeted power cuts left the town hall of the 5th arrondissement (district) of Paris – run by a centre-right mayor who backs the reform – without electricity for several hours, while student unions said that more than 400 high schools across the country were temporarily blockaded by protesting students.

In a sign of just how broad the protest movement has become, even the entrance to Panthéon-Assas university in Paris, France’s best-known law faculty and hardly a hotbed of radical politics, had been barricaded.

“The anger is greater than ever,” said Ian Brossat, a deputy mayor of Paris, attending Thursday’s rally wrapped in the tricolour sash typically worn by elected officials during public events. “Hostility towards an unjust reform has now been supplemented by outrage at the use of an anti-democratic tool,” he said, dismissing Macron’s latest pledge of a “change of method”.

“We’ve seen what the method looks like: it means bypassing the National Assembly and governing from the Élysée Palace,” Brossat added. “He is stuck in the role of an absolute monarch cut off from reality.”

A few steps away, retired teacher Sylvie Bredillet was equally dismissive of Macron’s suggestion that the government had failed to explain the motives of his pension reform.

“He says his government failed to get the message across, but we heard it loud and clear: he wants to force two more years of work on the essential workers who deserve their pensions, instead of taxing the wealthy,” she said.

"Our parents fought for us to live better and enjoy a deserved pension, now we stand in solidarity with younger generations," said Sylvie Bredillet, 67, attending Thursday's rally in Paris. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

“Macron says he’s holding his ground – well so are we,” added her partner Philippe, holding a banner that read “Gaulois réfractaire” (Gaul who resists change, a phrase Macron controversially used to comment on French resistance to reform) and sporting a moustache to match.

Both vowed to continue protesting until the reform is withdrawn. So did 40-year-old Emilie Dalle, a school headmistress from a suburb of Paris, who said she was even more motivated to march following the president's “authoritarian” move.

“The battle in parliament may be over, but we’re not done,” she said. “Macron cowed away from democracy, fearing he would lose a vote. Now we have to take matters into our own hands.”

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