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France burns as anger erupts over Macron pension reforms

Paris descended into chaos as protesters lit hundreds of overnight fires and violent clashes erupted between police and protesters. French President Emmanuel Macron faces mounting anger after he pushed through unpopular pension reforms.

(CN) — Paris police launching tear-gas canisters at crowds and hitting protesters with batons. Streets lit up by raging fires. Scores of smashed store windows. Numerous reports of injuries among police and protesters. Hundreds of demonstrators arrested.

It's back to the dark days of 2018, when France was gripped by the “yellow vest” protests that saw central Paris turn into a kind of war zone as police and protesters clashed over a raise in fuel taxes.

Thursday saw more than 1 million people take part in demonstrations across France to protest against French President Emmanuel Macron's decision a week ago to ram through pension reforms without a vote in parliament.

Macron has raised the age of retirement by two years to 64 in defiance of overwhelming public opposition. Facing a defeat in parliament, his government opted to trigger a constitutional device – article 49.3 of the French constitution – that allows budgetary measures to pass into law without parliament's approval. France's Constitutional Council is now examining whether relying on article 49.3 for pension reforms was legal.

Polls show two-thirds of French are against the pension cuts. Macron has said raising the retirement age must be done to keep the pension system solvent, an argument that is a source of debate.

The demonstrations were mostly peaceful during much of Thursday but turned unruly in Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and other cities as evening approached and clashes between protesters and police escalated.

“There were many protests, which sometimes lasted until very late last night, turning violent notably in Paris,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Friday on CNews, a French news channel.

Darmanin said protesters in Paris lit more than 900 fires, mostly of trash and street furniture. Trash has piled up on Parisian streets after days of strikes by trash collectors angry over the pension reforms, a situation that has drawn embarrassing international headlines to the French capital.

Across France, the interior minister said 457 people had been arrested and that 441 police officers had been injured. Scores of protesters were injured too, though there were no good estimates on how many.

Amnesty International condemned police violence against demonstrators, alleging hundreds of people were arbitrarily arrested and that police brutally fired tear gas directly at protesters. In a video, the human rights group showed images of police striking protesters with shields, batons and one officer striking a man in the head with his fist.

In Bordeaux, videos showed a blaze lit by protesters that burned the massive front door of the town hall. In Nantes, an administrative court building was ransacked and videos showed police attacking trade union activists at a cafe.

The unrest and announcement of another day of nationwide strikes next Tuesday forced Britain's King Charles III and Queen Consort Camilla on Friday to postpone a state visit to France.

The royal couple had planned to arrive Sunday evening before spending Monday in Paris and then taking a train to Bordeaux on Tuesday.

On Friday, French media reported that some public sector workers who roll out red carpets and hang flags to welcome visiting dignitaries said they would not perform their duties for the royal visit. Rail strikes on Tuesday also posed a risk of disrupting their trip.

Thursday's demonstrations were roughly equal in size to others that have taken place since France's trade unions began calling for strikes in January.

They also came a day after Macron went on television and tried to justify why he chose to bypass parliament in raising the age of retirement. A defiant Macron said in the television interview that the way the reforms were passed was proper and democratic.

“Do you think I am really pleased with this reform? No,” he said. “Do you think that I couldn't have done like many before me and swept the dust under the rug? Yes, maybe.”

But he said the reform was necessary because people are living longer and the number of pensioners is growing.

“People don't necessarily want to hear the truth, but it's a necessity for the country,” he said when asked why he pushed through the reforms in the face of such opposition.

Macron's popularity is at 28%, the lowest since France was hit by the yellow vests protests in 2018 and early 2019.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Categories:Civil Rights, Employment, Government, International, Politics

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