President Emmanuel Macron on Monday remained defiant over his controversial pensions reform, as France braced for another day of strikes and protests that risk more turmoil in the country.
Macron told a crisis meeting of senior lawmakers and cabinet ministers that while his hand was still held out to the unions, the violent protests over the last few days had nothing to do with the reform itself, participants said.
Nearly two weeks after Macron rammed the new pensions law through parliament using a special provision sidestepping any vote, unions have vowed no let-up in mass protests to get the government to back down.
They have called for another big day of action on Tuesday, the 10th such mobilisation since protests started in mid-January against the controversial law, which includes raising the retirement age to 64 from 62.
A state visit to France by Britain’s King Charles III, which had been due to begin on Sunday, was postponed because of the unrest.
Instead of hosting King Charles for a day of pomp and ceremony, Macron instead met Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, other cabinet ministers and senior lawmakers for the crisis talks at the Elysee Palace, the presidency said.
“We need to continue to hold out the hand to the unions,” a participant in the meeting quoted Macron as saying.
But he said the violent protests “had nothing to do with pensions” and all they had in common “was to target our institutions and security forces”.
Macron accused the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) party of “carrying out a real project to de-legitimise reasonable order, our institutions and their tools”, according to the participant.
‘Very big move’
In a conciliatory gesture, Borne has scheduled talks over three weeks, including with members of parliament, political parties, local authorities and unions.
If unions accept her offer for talks, Borne is expected to put new measures on the table designed to ease the impact of the pensions law targeting physically demanding jobs, conditions for older workers and retraining.
But early reactions were not promising for the prime minister.
Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union, who has taken an unexpectedly hard line against the pension reform, said he would accept the offer of talks but only if the reform was first “put to one side”.
Berger called on the government to come up with a “very big move on pensions”.
LFI firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Sunday that there was “a very simple way” to return to peaceful relations, and that was “to withdraw the law”.
The protest movement against the pension reform has turned into the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second mandate, with police and protesters clashing regularly in Paris and other cities since the law was forced through.
Last Thursday, the previous major protest day, police reported 457 arrests across France and injuries to 441 police officers.
Adding to tensions, protesters and police engaged in major clashes at a protest over water storage facilities in southwestern France on Saturday.
One protester with head trauma was fighting for his life, according to prosecutors. Seven protesters were wounded in total as well as 29 members of the security forces.
According to Paris mass transit operator RATP, metros and suburban trains will be “highly disrupted” during Tuesday’s strike action.
Rubbish collectors in the capital are continuing their strike, with close to 8,000 tonnes of garbage piled up in the streets as of Sunday.
Adding to the waste treatment blockage, workers at an incineration plant just outside Paris stopped work on Monday.
Some 15 per cent of service stations in France are short of petrol because of refinery strikes, while workers at a nuclear power plant in southwestern France stopped a reactor and limited access for crews.
The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, was closed on Monday after workers blocked entry to the attraction.
About a third of primary school teachers were expected to go on strike Tuesday.
French police have meanwhile come under severe criticism for heavy-handed tactics during recent demonstrations.
The Council of Europe said on Friday that peaceful protesters and journalists had to be protected from police violence and arbitrary arrest.
On Sunday, the IGPN, the internal affairs unit of the French police, said it had launched 17 investigations into incidents since the protests began.
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