June 25, 2024

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Protests again hit France as striker numbers dwindle

3 min read

A demonstrator holds a flare during a protest Thursday, April 6, 2023 in Nantes, western France. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to fill the streets of France Thursday for the 11th day of nationwide resistance to a government proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The furious public reaction to the plan has cornered and weakened French President Emmanuel Macron. (AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez)

PARIS (AP) — Protests disrupted vehicle traffic at Paris’ main airport and police fired clouds of tear gas in other French cities as people marched in a new round of strikes and nationwide demonstrations Thursday seeking to get President Emmanuel Macron to scrap pension reforms that have ignited a monthslong firestorm of public anger.

Talks between trade union leaders and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne broke up Wednesday without a breakthrough, setting the stage for protesters’ return to the streets.

However, the number of strikers has fallen, particularly in the transport sector, since the beginning of the movement in January. On Thursday, the Paris Metro was operating a near-normal service, in stark contrast to previous days of action, a sign that some in the movement are beginning to slow. Less than 8% of teachers are on strike, according to the Education Ministry. However, the sizeable TotalEnergies oil refinery in Gonfreville-l’Orcher remains closed.

Paris marcher Khadija Philip disagreed there was a drop in will, vowing “we won’t give up as long as they haven’t taken the time to hear us and reconsider their decision.” Union representative Sylvain Challan Belval said that Macron’s government is simply playing for time hoping that the protest movement “will blow itself out.”

In Lyon, police fired tear gas — for many a new normal in France — to disperse a crowd outside a Nespresso coffee store that was being looted.

The Interior Ministry on Thursday deployed some 11,500 police officers nationwide, including 4,200 in Paris, to try to avert more of the clashes and moments of vandalism that have marred previous protests.

In Paris, rat catchers hurled rodent cadavers at City Hall Wednesday in one of the more memorable illustrations of how Macron’s plans to raise the national retirement age from 62 to 64 have stoked workers’ fury. Broadcaster BFMTV showed rodent corpses being tossed by workers in white protective suits.

Natacha Pommet, a leader of the public services branch of the CGT trade union, said Thursday that Paris’ rat catchers wanted “to show the hard reality of their mission” and that opposition to Macron’s pension reforms is morphing into a wider movement of worker grievances over salaries and other complaints.

“All this anger brings together all types of anger,” she said in a phone interview.

Ten previous rounds of nationwide strikes and protests since January have failed to get Macron to change course, and there was no sign from his government that Thursday’s 11th round of upheaval would make it back down.

Largely peaceful crowds marched behind unions’ colored flags and banners in Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, Bordeaux in the southwest, Lyon in the southeast and other cities. In Paris, strikers again closed the Eiffel Tower.

In the western city of Nantes, rumbling tractors joined the parade of marchers and thick clouds of police tear gas were deployed against demonstrators. The use of police tear was also reported in Lyon and the Brittany city of Rennes.

At Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, about 100 demonstrators blocked a road leading to Terminal 1 on Thursday morning and entered the terminal building, the airport operator said. It said flights were unaffected, but travelers towing their luggage had to weave their way past flag-waving protesters.

A CGT representative at the airport, Loris Foreman, told BFM TV that the demonstrators wanted “to show the world and Europe that we don’t want to work to 64 years old.”

Striking workers had less of an impact on transport services than during previous days of protests and fewer demonstrators were reported in some cities. Still, even if somewhat diminished, the marches around the country showed that opposition to the pension reform remains strong.

It’s “a deep anger, a cold anger,” said Sophie Binet, the newly elected general secretary of the CGT union. She described Macron’s government as “completely disconnected from the country and completely bunkerized in its ministries.”

“We can’t turn the page until the reform is withdrawn,” she said, promising more protests.

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