Macron defiant as anger smoulders over French pension reform

Macron defiant as anger smoulders over French pension reform
Striking employees of the LCL bank gather outside the company's headquarters in Paris to demand wage increases and better working conditions, on January 17, 2023.
Ludovic MARIN / AFP

PARIS, France — French President Emmanuel Macron appeared defiant on Tuesday after his government narrowly survived no-confidence votes over an increase in the retirement age, but urged calm as furious protesters kept up the pressure on the streets.

Ignoring calls from opponents, Macron said there would be no government reshuffle, no fresh parliamentary elections and no referendum on his controversial pension reform, even in the face of widespread protests that have brought millions into the streets.

"We are facing a moment in which we must appease, calm, go on the ground and listen to people's anger," he told a meeting of politicians, according to participants.

The government's decision to invoke constitutional power to force the pensions reform through the National Assembly without a vote last week has dismayed political allies and caused fury on the streets.

As thousands gathered in central Paris and other French cities for another night of protests, Macron said "riots do not prevail over the representatives of the people". 

Police fired teargas at the Paris protesters and made more arrests, after nearly 300 people were already detained Monday night, including 234 in the capital.

Macron's centrist government narrowly survived two no-confidence motions in parliament on Monday, clearing the way for the legislation raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

"The reform is adopted, but it is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of French people," political scientist Jerome Jaffre told France Inter radio on Tuesday. 

"That's a source of problems, of bitterness, and it's far from being resolved."

Demonstrations also took place in Grenoble, Rennes, Lille and Nantes, where scuffles broke out. 

Similar scenes also played out in the eastern cities of Dijon and Strasbourg  — where protesters smashed the windows of a department store.

Arbitrary arrests?

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen warned Macron on Tuesday that he was pushing the country to the verge of a "social explosion".

"Consciously, the government is creating all the conditions for a social explosion, as if they were looking for that," Le Pen told AFP in an interview, adding that she would not help "extinguish the fire" of public anger over the legislation.

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police of having made arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle anti-government protests.

They cited as proof the fact that the vast majority of detained demonstrators were released after a few hours, without any charges.

"Criminal law is being used by the government to deter demonstrators from exercising their right to demonstrate," said Raphael Kempf, a lawyer specialising in human rights and freedoms.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez rejected the allegations, telling the BFMTV broadcaster: "There are no unjustified arrests".

Macron's office said the president would give a live television interview at 1pm on Wednesday.

He is expected to defend what was to be a flagship reform while seeking fresh momentum for the four years remaining of his second term. 

At Tuesday's meeting with political allies at the presidential palace, Macron called for fresh ideas in the "next two to three weeks" with a view to adopting "a change in method and a new reform agenda", according to a participant who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

'Necessary transformations'

Under-fire Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has refused to resign, telling AFP that she was "determined to continue to carry out the necessary transformations in our country with my ministers". 

As well as the political crisis sparked by the law, the government is also contending with growing public order problems and the risk of economic disruption. 

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there had been 1,200 unauthorized demonstrations since last Thursday, "some of them violent". 

Meanwhile, strikes and blockades at oil refineries could create fuel shortages.

Around 12% of petrol stations throughout France are running out of petrol and diesel, while six percent have run dry.

"I've been to most stations," 18-year-old high school student Christos Chatts told AFP in the southern port city of Marseille. "They're either closed, or there's no fuel, or there are monster queues." 

Clashes broke out Tuesday as the government attempted to requisition the Fos-sur-Mer oil depot, near Marseille, where personnel have been on strike.

The streets of Paris also remain strewn with uncollected rubbish after a two-week strike by garbage workers.

Another round of strikes and protests organised by trade unions for Thursday could again bring public transport to a standstill.

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 12,000 security personnel will be mobilized Thursday, including 5,000 in Paris. 

A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2019.

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