Police fired tear gas and fought with violent black-clad anarchists in Paris on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of mainly peaceful protesters marched across France against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the pension age.
In a ninth day of countrywide protests, train and air travel was disrupted while teachers were among many professions to walk off the job, just days after the government pushed through legislation to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.
Demonstrations in central Paris were generally peaceful, but smaller groups of “Black Bloc” anarchists smashed shop windows, demolished street furniture and ransacked a McDonald’s restaurant. Clashes ensued as riot police moved in and drove back the anarchists with tear gas and stun grenades.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said 123 police officers had been injured and 80 people arrested across the country.
Small groups continued to clash with police in Paris into the evening, setting bins ablaze and playing cat-and-mouse with security forces.
Labour unions fear that protests could turn more violent if the government does not heed the growing popular anger over pension curbs.
Unions called for regional action over the weekend and new countrywide strikes and protests on March 28, the day King Charles III is due to travel to Bordeaux from Paris by train.
“This is a response to the falsehoods expressed by the President and his incomprehensible stubbornness,” said Marylise Léon, deputy secretary-general of the CFDT union.
“The responsibility of this explosive situation lies not with the unions but with the government.”
Police had also fired tear gas at some protesters in several other cities, including Nantes and Bordeaux in the west, and used water cannons against others in Rennes in the northwest.
In the western town of Lorient, the Ouest-France newspaper said projectiles caused a brief fire in the yard of a police station.
“There is a lot of anger, an explosive situation,” the leader of the hard-line CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said at the start of a rally in Paris. Union leaders called for calm but were angry with what they called Mr. Macron’s “provocative” comments.
On Wednesday, Mr. Macron broke weeks of silence on the new policy, saying he would stand firm and the law would come into force by the end of the year. He compared protests to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Opinion polls have long shown that a majority of voters oppose the legislation. Opponents were further angered last week when the government rammed the pension changes through parliament without a vote.
Many slogans and banners took aim at the President, who avoided reporters as he arrived in Brussels for a European Union leaders summit.
The French Interior Ministry said 1.089 million protested across the country, including 119,000 in the capital, which was a record since protests started in January. The CGT union said 3.5 million people marched in the country, equalling a previous high on March 7.
“I came here because I oppose this reform and I really oppose the fact that democracy no longer means anything,” Sophie Mendy, an administrative medical worker, told Reuters at the Paris rally. “We’re not being represented, and so we’re fed up.”
Electricity output was cut as unions raised pressure on the government to withdraw the law. Flight services will continue to be reduced on the weekend, the civil aviation authority said.
Protests also targeted oil depots and blocked a liquefied natural gas terminal in the northern city of Dunkirk. Rolling strikes at oil depots and refineries have led to major petrol shortages in the southeast and west of France.
Protests against the new law, which also accelerates a planned increase in the number of required working years to draw a full pension, have drawn huge crowds in rallies organized by unions since January.
Most have been peaceful but anger has mounted since the government bypassed a vote in the lower house of parliament.
The past seven nights have seen demonstrations in Paris and other cities with rubbish bins set ablaze and clashes with police. It has been the most serious challenge to Mr. Macron’s authority since the “yellow vest” revolt of disgruntled lower-income people four years ago.
“The street has a legitimacy in France. If Mr. Macron can’t remember this historic reality, I don’t know what he is doing here,” 42-year-old entertainment-show worker Willy Mancel said at the Nantes rally.
With inflation high, workers can ill afford to lose many paydays when on strike, feeding government hopes the strikes could eventually lose steam.