Clashes erupted in Paris on Thursday near a Left Bank brasserie popular with President Emmanuel Macron, during a day of nationwide protests against a pension bill that he has pushed through despite widespread opposition.
La Rotonde, where the awning briefly caught fire as protesters threw stones, bottles, and paint at police, is well known in France for hosting a celebratory dinner for Macron as he led the first round of the 2017 presidential election.
Protests have gathered huge crowds since January against the flagship reform of Macron’s second term, which lifts the retirement age by two years to 64.
But the rallies and strikes have also coalesced widespread anger against Macron, who is often the target of banners and chants.
“Strike, blockade, Macron walk away!” protesters chanted in the western city of Rennes, where police fired tear gas at protesters who threw projectiles at them and set bins on fire.
The protests have otherwise been largely peaceful, though violence has broken out on the fringes in cities across France.
Polls show a wide majority of French oppose the pension legislation and the government’s decision to push it through parliament without a vote. But a source close to Macron said that was not what mattered.
“If the role of a president of the republic is to make decisions according to public opinion, there is no need to have elections,” the source said. “Being president is to assume choices that may be unpopular at a given time.”
Labour groups have vowed to dig in their heels after talks with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Wednesday, which lasted just an hour, failed to break the stalemate.
Union leaders and protesters said the only way out of the crisis was for the legislation to be scrapped, an option which Borne and Macron have repeatedly rejected.
“There is no other solution than withdrawing the reform,” the new leader of the hardline CGT union, Sophie Binet, said at the start of the Paris rally.
Thursday’s marches – the 11th nationwide day of protests in the past three months – could provide an indication of whether the drawn-out rallies are losing steam or gaining momentum.
The previous day of demonstrations on March 28 drew smaller crowds, according to the Interior Ministry, with 740,000 people protesting across the country compared with a record 1.28 million seen on March 7.
Trains were less heavily disrupted than in previous days of strikes against the reform.
The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cut flights by 20% in cities like Bordeaux and Marseille, but not at Paris airports like in previous strikes since mid-January.
Some 20% of primary school teachers are also expected to join the strike, local media quoted the Snuipp-FSU union as saying, down from previous walkouts.
The latest wave of demonstrations represents the most serious challenge to the authority of Macron since the “Yellow Vest” revolt four years ago.
A key date will be April 14, when the Constitutional Council delivers its verdict on the pension bill. Constitutional experts say it is unlikely to strike the legislation down, which the government likely hopes will help weaken protests.
“Mobilisation will continue, one way or another … It’s a long distance race,” the CGT’s Binet said.