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New clashes hit France in Macron pensions standoff

France hit by new protests after pensions deadlock
Source: Video Screenshot

Radical protesters clashed with French security forces as hundreds of thousands hit the streets Thursday in a new show of anger against President Emmanuel Macron‘s pension reforms.

Unions are seeking to maintain pressure ahead of a key court ruling next week on the overhaul, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and demanding people work longer for a full pay-out.

Macron, currently on a visit to China, is facing the biggest challenge of his second term over the changes, defiantly refusing to budge despite sliding personal popularity ratings.

Scuffles broke out in the afternoon in several cities, including in Paris where some radical protesters briefly set fire to the awning of a restaurant prized by the president.

Demonstrations were held across the country, with people brandishing placards or waving union flags from Paris to the southern cities of Montpellier and Marseille.

“We haven’t given up yet and we don’t intend to,” said 50-year-old public servant Davy Chretien as he marched in Marseille.

The CGT union claimed 400,000 people had turned up to the Paris protest, down slightly on the figure it gave for last week’s protests.

– Restaurant set ablaze –

Among the crowd, some hardline protesters pelted paint against the shields of heavily equipped policemen outside La Rotonde, a famous brasserie favoured by Macron.

Its red awning briefly caught fire when a smoke bomb was thrown onto it, but firefighters quickly put out the flames.

Elsewhere in Paris protesters attacked a bank branch, breaking glass and carrying off files and computer keyboards, an AFP correspondent saw.

Some threw projectiles at police, who responded with tear gas. The Paris police headquarters said that there had been injuries among officers but could not immediately name a total figure.

Striking railway workers also briefly stormed the former headquarters of the Credit Lyonnais bank, a building that now houses companies including the BlackRock investment firm.

Around 20 people were arrested in the capital, police said.

In the western city of Nantes, several protesters threw rocks at police, who also used tear gas, an AFP photographer saw.

But other rallies appeared largely peaceful with several featuring dancing demonstrators or brass bands.

– Losing steam? –

Unions hoped for a mass turnout on the 11th day of action since January, after signs the protest movement was starting to lose momentum.

On Thursday, the Paris metro system for the first time on a strike day experienced minimal disruption, and across the country only one in four high-speed trains was cancelled.

The education ministry said only eight percent of schoolteachers were on strike.

Many of the protests turned violent after Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked on March 16 a controversial executive power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.

All sides in the standoff are awaiting an April 14 verdict on the validity of the reform by France’s Constitutional Council, which has the power to strike out some or even all of the legislation.

Protests have no sway over council members, known as the “wise ones”, but unions want to keep up their momentum.

“We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis,” Laurent Berger, head of the centrist CFDT union, told RTL radio.

“It’s a problem… that needs to be solved by the president.”

– Sliding popularity –

France’s eight main labour unions said a meeting with Borne on Wednesday, the first since January, was a “failure” after she refused to discuss going back on the minimum retirement age of 64.

The government has argued that working longer is necessary to prevent the pension system from plunging into deficit.

In the rest of Europe, people mostly retire in their late 60s as life expectancy has increased.

Critics say the pension reform is unfair for people in tough jobs who start working early, as well as women who interrupt their careers to raise children.

If the Constitutional Council gives its green light, Macron will be able to sign the changes into law.

But the standoff has eroded his popularity, with a poll from the Elabe group suggesting Wednesday that far-right leader Marine Le Pen would beat him if the presidential election of last year were repeated now.

Around 64 percent of people still support the anti-pension reform protests, polling firm Odoxa found in a survey published Thursday, little changed from previous weeks.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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