Protests, strikes, fuel shortages as pensions fury rages in France

Published March 24, 2023
Bordeaux (France): An anti-riot police officer detains a protester during a demonstration on a national action day on Thursday.—AFP
Bordeaux (France): An anti-riot police officer detains a protester during a demonstration on a national action day on Thursday.—AFP

PARIS: French citizens protested and downed tools again on Thursday, with transport and refineries grinding to a halt as anger over a deeply unpopular pensions reform showed no sign of abating.

As thousands took to the streets in protest, planes landing at Paris airports faced potential fuel shortages, rubbish kept piling up, and questions hung over a looming state visit by King Charles III.

A defiant President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that he was prepared to accept unpopularity over imposing a bill raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 because it was “necessary” and “in the general interest of the country”.

Acting on Macron’s instructions, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked an article in the constitution a week ago to adopt the reform without a parliamentary vote.

The government on Monday narrowly survived a no-confidence motion, but the outrage has spawned the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second term.

Thursday’s protests were the latest in a string of nationwide stoppages that began in mid-January against the pension changes.

In Paris, 61-year-old speech therapist Laurence Briens said she had joined thousands in the streets because she was angry with the way the reform had been adopted.

“It’s as if we’re being treated like children,” she said.

School teacher Cedric Nothias, 46, held up a sign that read: “How does one teach democracy when Macron is trampling all over it?”

Thousands more people protested in the western city of Rennes, with one holding up a sign reading: “I want to grow old with my lover, not with my boss.” Most protesters in the city were peaceful, but several clashed with police forces, destroying shop fronts or throwing projectiles at the security forces, who responded with teargas and water cannons.

In the southern city of Marseille, Marine Danaux, 43, and her son were among thousands marching. “I think it’s important to bring him so he realises what’s going on,” she said.

A survey on Sunday showed Macron’s personal approval rating at just 28 per cent, its lowest level since the anti-government “Yellow Vest” protest movement in 2018-2019.

Earlier on Thursday, demonstrators briefly occupied the train tracks at the capital’s Gare de Lyon train station, causing delays. Protesters blocked road access to the Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris, French television footage showed.

Half of all high-speed trains nationwide were cancelled, national railway operator SNCF said.

Paris municipal garbage collectors have pledged to uphold a rolling strike until Monday, as thousands of tonnes of rubbish rot on the streets. Around a fifth of schoolteachers did not turn up for work on Thursday, the education ministry said.

Blockades at oil refineries were also to continue, with only one such TotalEnergies site in four working in the country.

The ministry of energy transition on Thursday warned that kerosene supply to the capital and its airports was becoming “critical”.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation has warned that its fuel stocks at the two main Paris airports are “under pressure”, and urged planes to fill up during foreign stopovers.

Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2023

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