French President Emmanuel Macron faced mounting pressure on Friday after violent demonstrations that left more than 400 security forces injured and the centre of major cities shrouded in tear gas and smoke.
More than 450 people were arrested Thursday during the most violent day of protests since the start of the year against Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age to 64.
The French presidency announced Friday that King Charles III’s visit next week had been postponed after unions declared another day of strikes and protests on Tuesday, during what would have been the British monarch’s trip.
“Given the announcement yesterday of another national day of protests against pension reform on Tuesday March 28, the visit of Charles III, initially scheduled from 26-28 March, has been postponed,” it said.
The decision was “in order to be able to welcome His Majesty King III in conditions which reflect our friendly relations,” it added.
“There were a lot of demonstrations and some of them turned violent, notably in Paris,” Interior Minister Darmanin told the CNews channel while giving figures for the number of arrests and injured.
More than 900 fires were lit around the capital on Thursday, he said, with radical anarchist groups blamed for setting uncollected rubbish ablaze and smashing shop windows, leading to frequent clashes with riot police.
In southwestern Bordeaux, protesters set fire to the entrance to city hall, briefly raising fears for the whole building until firefighters arrived to extinguish it.
“Why would you make a target of our communal building, of all people of Bordeaux? I can only condemn it in the strongest possible terms,” the mayor of Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, told RTL radio on Friday.
– Over a million –
More than a million people marched nationwide on Thursday, with the protest movement reinvigorated by Macron’s tactics and statements over the last week.
Uproar over legislation to change the retirement age — which Macron pushed through parliament without a vote last week — has created another huge domestic crisis for the president just 10 months into his second term in office.
But Darmanin, a hardliner in Macron’s centrist government, dismissed calls from political opponents and protesters to withdraw the pensions reform.
“I don’t think we should withdraw this law because of violence,” he said.
“If so, that means there’s no state. We should accept a democratic, social debate, but not a violent debate.”
Turnout in Paris and other cities on Thursday were higher than last week when momentum appeared to be waning.
Macron’s decision to force the legislation through parliament and his refusal to back down in a television interview on Wednesday appeared to have energised many opponents.
“There’s the substance — the reform of the pension system — and then there’s the other issue of how democracy functions,” 21-year-old student Judicael Juge told AFP during the protests.
– Trash –
“I think that is more of a source of anger now than the substance.”
Commentators are questioning how the crisis will end, just four years after the “Yellow Vest” anti-government demonstrations rocked the country.
“No one knows where the way out lies. There’s not an easy one,” political scientist Bastien Francois from the Sorbonne University in Paris told AFP.
“Everything depends on one man who is a prisoner of the political situation.”
The leader of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, said Friday that he had spoken to an aide to the president and suggested a pause on implementing the pensions law for six months.
“It’s the moment to say ‘listen, let’s put things on pause, let’s wait six months’,” Berger told RTL radio. “It would calm things down.”
Rubbish is still gathering in the streets of Paris due to a rolling strike by garbage collectors, while blockades of oil refineries by striking workers are beginning to create fuel shortages around the country.
– Clashes –
The ministry of energy transition on Thursday warned that kerosene supply to the capital and its airports was becoming “critical”.
More flights were cancelled this weekend at airports around the country due to a strike by air traffic controllers.
Union leaders expressed satisfaction that the protest movement had gathered a second wind, while condemning the violence, most of it carried out by anarchist groups known as “black blocs”.
Some 1.089 million people demonstrated across France on Thursday, the interior ministry said, putting Paris turnout at 119,000, the highest for the capital since the movement started in January.
The nationwide figure still fell short of the 1.28 million people who marched on March 7, according to government figures.
Unions claimed a record 3.5 million people had protested across France, and 800,000 in the capital.
Clashes between police and protesters also took place in the cities of Lille, Nantes, Rennes and Toulouse.
© Agence France-Presse