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France 24
France 24

May Day march against pension reform: Paris protesters determined to 'give it our all'

Protesters climb the Triumph of the Republic statue on Place de la Nation during the May Day protests in Paris, on May 1, 2023. © Lara Bullens, FRANCE 24

Thousands marched across Paris and other French cities in what unions hoped would be one of the biggest May Day demonstrations in years. Galvanised by previous protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans, including raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, protesters marched with a sense of determination. 

May 1 in Paris this year was much more than the usual celebration of workers and labour rights. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of the capital in a new show of anger against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, which was forced through parliament in March.  

Monday marked the 13th day of mass mobilisations against the unpopular pension reform. Although the demonstration was smaller than many of those before it, protesters have kept up their morale and continued to take action over the course of several months.  

Many had wondered whether Monday’s demonstration would be the final hurrah, or prompt a second wind for opponents of the reform. 

Between shattered shop fronts and decorated convoys playing Beyoncé’s “Run The World”, participants on the ground seemed more determined than ever.   

‘Ready to give it our all’ 

At Place de la République, where the protest began, the mood was cheerful. Friends embraced after finding each other in the crowd and demonstrators posed for photos, holding up creative placards. Despite ongoing anger over the reforms, there was no sign of surrender.  

“I feel neither resigned nor hopeful,” said 45-year-old lawyer Ninon, who has regularly attended the pension protests. “But I do feel people are determined. We want concrete action, whether it’s about retirement or the environment.” 

Farm manager Alexandre, 47, echoed her conviction. He has attended every protest that has taken place in Paris since the start of the year. “We’ll keep going until the government withdraws the bill,” he said with a smirk. “I think the protests will keep happening. I really hope so, even though they’ve lost a bit of momentum. I loved coming out every Thursday.”  

Alexandre holding a sign that reads: "Oh Manu, you are going down," referring to President Emmanuel Macron. © Lara Bullens, FRANCE 24

As demonstrators started making their way to the end point at Place de la Nation, about a 30-minute walk from République, the mood remained festive. Despite 5,000 gendarmes deployed especially for the occasion by French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, many police remained relatively far from the crowds, mostly checking bags of those entering. Although a police decree allowing authorities to use drones was passed ahead of the protest, their presence in the sky was not evident.  

Clashes did erupt in some places, with police firing tear gas in parts of Paris, Nantes and Lyon. The interior ministry said more than 290 people were arrested at protests across France.

Police violence is a worry that has chipped away at the determination of some protesters. “Though I am convinced they will continue, I fear the demonstrations will become increasingly violent, since more and more people feel they aren’t being heard,” said Ninon.  

Nathi and Lucie, two young students, said they were “ready to give it our all” to fight the reform. But after seeing friends of theirs arbitrarily arrested and held in custody during previous protests, they have become more wary. “Some friends have become scared of coming out to protest. That’s unacceptable in France in 2023,” said 19-year-old Lucie. 

“But our anger is stronger than the violence we’re subjected to.”    

Weighing options

A chorus of women singing a song condemning war, “Rue des Lilas”, captivated the attention of onlookers while brass bands roared in the background. Young demonstrators climbed on bus stops, others stopped to slap pinata-style effigies of Macron.  

Nathi became angry as she recounted how the government used Article 49.3 to force the pension bill through parliament without a vote in mid-March. “The way the reforms were passed was revolting,” she said.

Now protesters have pinned their hopes on a possible public referendum, an option that will be reviewed by the Constitutional Council on Wednesday. “A referendum is the only way the government will listen to us, seeing as these protests clearly aren’t working.”  

Though the reform has now become law, the French Constitutional Council is due to rule on a second request for a referendum, filed by left-wing MPs in April.

“We’ll take what we can get,” said Ninon, referring to the possibility of a referendum. “Anything other than this is good!”    

Protesters were weighing the options ahead of them, although there aren’t many. Some even made reference to 1995, when then prime minister Alain Juppé withdrew then president Jacques Chirac’s retirement reform after three weeks of widespread strikes.

>> Read more : A look back at when French protesters defeated government reform plans

“I don’t believe the government will backtrack, but it’s hard to say,” Lucie chimed in. “But that moment in history brings hope.”  

Proud of unions

May Day this year was the first time since 2009 that all eight of France’s main unions joined in calling for protests. Convoys for each union, white vans adorned with large colourful balloons, made their way to Place de la Nation, members trailing behind.  

Though farm manager Alexandre is not a union member, he expressed deep pride for their capacity to band together. “It’s great to see, it’s very special,” he said with a smile. “Their coming together allowed the protests to have a scope they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and that’s a huge victory.”  

According to French newspaper Libération, union membership has shot up since the protests began. The hard-left CGT union and France’s largest CFDT union both have 30,000 more members than they did three months ago, while the third-largest FO union counts an additional 10,000. With its 140,000 members, the Christian CFTC union surpasses memberships in the far-right Rassemblement National (National Rally) party, the conservative Les Républicains and Macron’s centre-right Renaissance party combined.  

But for retirees Odile, Patricia and Jo, the victory is a small one compared to what needs to change. “France just celebrated 65 years of the Fifth Republic,” said 81-year-old Odile. “We think it’s time for a new republic.”  

Patricia, 75, agreed. “One where we don’t have a monarchical president. Where votes represent the diversity of political opinions present in France’s population.”  

“And one where we have a way to control elected officials,” added Jo, 83.  

“But the referendum is a pipe dream,” Patricia added. “We are not expecting much from Macron.”  

Odile (L) and Jo (R), both retired, say it's time for a Sixth Republic in France. © Lara Bullens, FRANCE 24

As demonstrators approached the finish line at Place de la Nation, shattered glass littered the streets, evidence of clashes between police and protesters. As clouds of teargas filled the air, many tried to cling to the cheerful atmosphere they had experienced throughout the day.  

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