France braces for another day of mayhem and violence

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PARIS — France is bracing for fresh chaos Tuesday with a day of protests planned against Emmanuel Macron’s detested pensions reform, and trade unions calling for a general strike.

Protests last Thursday descended into turmoil with clashes between police and protesters, and scenes of violence across the country. In the wake of the unrest, which resulted in more than 450 arrests, the French president was forced to cancel a state visit by King Charles III amid security concerns.

Public transport, universities, schools and public services are expected to be disrupted again Tuesday. The impact of the industrial action is being felt across all sectors and areas of public life. A rolling strike of waste collectors in Paris has meant that trash is still piled high in parts of the French capital, and a strike at refineries has led to fuel shortages at some petrol pumps.

Despite widespread unrest, the French president pledged last week that he would not backtrack on the pensions reform which raises the age of retirement to 64 from 62, saying it was “necessary” for the country to balance the books of its generous pensions scheme.

The French government sparked outrage when it invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution to pass its pensions reform, in a controversial move that bypassed a vote in parliament it was expected to lose. The government narrowly survived two motions of no confidence in the National Assembly after the controversial move.

Tuesday’s protest could be an indicator of whether Macron’s inflexibility whips up more discontent on the street or whether the protest movement is starting to subside. French police have been accused of using heavy-handed tactics and it is likely that students and pupils will join protests in greater numbers. On Saturday, a man was left in a critical condition after clashes with police at a French water reservoir project.

Stalemate over pensions reform

Ahead of the protests on Tuesday, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called for talks with trade unions and announced she would no longer use article 49.3 except when it comes to budgetary measures.

“Obviously there are tensions over the reform, we need to listen,” she told AFP on Sunday. “[We need] to calm the country and give the French some answers promptly.”

A demonstration of Totalenergies striking employees outside the Gronfreville-l’Orcher refinery | Lou Benoist/AFP via Getty Images

However, talks between the government and trade unions over the pensions reforms are at a standstill. Macron has said he is open to discussing a range of issues including working conditions, pay and work-related strain, but not the pensions reform. Trade unions say they would agree to talks only if the government agreed to re-examine the legal age of retirement.

With no clear way out and in the wake of a string of violent incidents over the last weeks, there are fears within the trade unions that France may be facing a socio-political crisis similar to the Yellow Jackets movement that rocked the country in 2018-2019.

Trade union leader Laurent Berger warned Monday that France was in “a total state of tension.”

“There is a common will [with the government] to find an exit for this protest movement and not descend into a madness that might take hold of the country, with violence and resentment,” he warned in an interview with French channel France 2.

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