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Rowdy protests again hit France, yet striker numbers dwindle


Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — Protesters disrupted vehicle traffic at Paris’ main airport and police fired clouds of tear gas in other French cities in the latest round of strikes and demonstrations Thursday against President Emmanuel Macron’s contested pension reforms.

Macron’s drive to raise the national retirement age from 62 to 64 has ignited a months-long 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, while unions called yet another day of protests for April 13.

However, the number of strikers has fallen, particularly in the transportation sector, since protests began in January. About 400,000 people joined the protest in Paris Thursday, down from 450,000 the week before, said the powerful CGT union. Interior Ministry estimates of the marchers’ numbers weren’t immediately available but are always much lower.

On Thursday, the Paris Metro ran almost normally, in stark contrast to previous days of action. Less than 8% of teachers were on strike, according to the Education Ministry. However, the sizeable TotalEnergies oil refinery in Gonfreville-l’Orcher remained closed.

In Paris, police were pelted by projectiles when the protest reached La Rotonde, a restaurant patronized by Macron during the 2017 presidential election that he went on to win. Some parts of the awning of the chic venue were set on fire, before the flames were extinguished by officers. At least 20 people were detained by police in Paris.

Officers dispersed violent protesters, who were in the minority, with tear gas after they smashed up a branch of Credit Agricole bank.

A member of the Paris riot police momentarily fell unconscious after being hit by a cobble stone. The officer quickly regained consciousness.

Experts say violence seen in the nationwide protests, with dozens of demonstrators and police hurt, has turned off less activist parts of the population.

“The demonstrations have become more violent as they’ve gone on. That means many in France are now staying away,” said Luc Rouban, research director of a center at Sciences Po, the prestigious Parisian university.

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 Macron’s government was simply playing for time and 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 France, a country that prides itself on being a pioneer in human rights, the right to protest is fundamental — and experts say violent factions from other parts of Europe travel to Paris to incite instability and unrest.

A member of the Paris riot police momentarily fell unconscious after being hit by a cobble stone. The officer quickly regained consciousness.

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 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 gas was also reported in Lyon, and the city of Rennes, in Brittany.

At Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport on Thursday morning, about 100 demonstrators blocked a road leading to Terminal 1 and entered the 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 transportation 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.


Masha Macpherson and Helena Alves in Paris contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: AP National News

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