PARIS – Police fired clouds of tear gas against unruly protesters in Paris and other French cities Thursday as hundreds of thousands of people returned to streets across the country to vent anger 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 opposition. Talks between trade union leaders and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne quickly collapsed Wednesday without a breakthrough, setting the stage for the fresh demonstrations that were largely peaceful but also punctured by violence.
Trade unions vowed to keep up their resistance and called for another round of protests in a week. But labor strikes that have caused significant disruptions since January lost some of their bite, with fewer workers taking part.
The Paris Metro ran almost normally Thursday, in contrast with previous days of action. Less than 8% of teachers were on strike, according to the Education Ministry.
However, strikers again closed the Eiffel Tower, and the unions still managed to mobilize large crowds for protests across the country. The Interior Ministry said 570,000 people took part; unions said the figure was closer to 2 million.
There were chaotic scenes at the Paris demonstration that wound through the capital's streets, leaving a trail of destruction. Police were pelted by projectiles when the march reached La Rotonde, a restaurant patronized by Macron during the 2017 presidential election that he went on to win.
A small fire scorched parts of the chic venue’s outside awning and some of its windows were smashed. Demonstrators employing so-called black bloc tactics also targeted banks, ripping down a protective wooden screen erected around one branch and smashing the windows with hammers and rocks before police dispersed them.
Police fired repeated volleys of tear gas and hared after protesters who set fires.
The CGT union estimated that 400,000 people joined the Paris protest, down from 450,000 the week before. The police estimate was far lower: 57,000. Officers detained at least 31 people in the capital. The Paris police force also reported dozens of injuries in its ranks, including 13 officers who were treated in hospitals.
Experts say protest violence, with scores of demonstrators and police hurt in 11 rounds of nationwide demonstrations since January, 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, a research director at Paris university Sciences Po.
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.”
Elsewhere in France, largely peaceful crowds marched behind union flags and banners in Marseille on the Mediterranean coast, Bordeaux in the southwest, Lyon in the southeast and other cities.
In the western city of Nantes, where rumbling tractors joined marchers, clouds of police tear gas were deployed. Tear gas was also reported in Rennes, in Brittany, and was used to disperse a crowd outside a Nespresso coffee store in Lyon that was being looted.
The Interior Ministry deployed 11,500 police officers nationwide, including 4,200 in Paris, to try to avert the clashes and moments of vandalism that also had marred previous protests.
The months-long protest movement has failed to get Macron to change course. Critics accuse the government of inflaming demonstrators by not listening to them.
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.
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 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 union, said the 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.
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 BFMTV that the demonstrators wanted “to show the world and Europe that we don’t want to work to 64 years old.”
Masha Macpherson and Helena Alves in Paris contributed to this report.