Pension protests in France: hundreds of arrests after the French government introduced changes

Paris (CNN) At least 310 people have been detained across France as the embattled government faces backlash for implementing pension reforms that will raise the country’s retirement age by two years.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio RTL that most of Thursday night’s arrests – 258 – were in Paris. Although calm had returned to the capital’s streets by Friday morning, government ministers were on the defensive following Thursday night’s impromptu protests.

The French government on Thursday pushed through controversial plans to raise the country’s retirement age from 62 to 64, a move that sparked weeks of protest in the country.

Government spokesman Olivier Veran and Budget Minister Gabriel Attal both reiterated President Emmanuel Macron’s claim that the government had not wanted to use its constitutional power to push the law through. They spoke to French outlets, LCI and France Inter respectively.

“If we don’t [the reforms] today they are much bolder measures that we will have to take in the future,” said Attal.

Police on Friday drove out garbage collectors who refuse to work at the incinerator of Ivry-sur-Seine near Paris.

Protesters briefly blocked Paris’ ring road Friday morning in protest of the pension reform, causing long delays to morning commutes, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.

And a strike by garbage collectors that has left many streets in Paris full of garbage bags continues. Interior Minister Darmanin said he would order the police to force some of them to work.

“I respect the garbage collectors’ strike,” he said, “but what is not acceptable is unsanitary conditions.”

In a note Thursday evening, as part of the response to pension reforms, the Interior Ministry called on security forces to protect elected officials in France, who “are sometimes subject to threats, insults or even malicious acts such as damage to properties.”

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced in the National Assembly earlier Thursday that Macron would activate special constitutional powers to pass the proposed pension reform law.

“We can’t bet on the future of our pensions,” Borne said amid jeers and chants from lawmakers. “This reform is necessary.”

Labor leaders in France called for new demonstrations following the Borne announcement, with several thousand people gathering on Place de la Concorde in Paris and several other cities in France on Thursday night.

“By resorting to [constitutional article] 49.3, the government shows that it does not have a majority to approve the two-year postponement of the statutory retirement age,” Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, one of the unions leading the protests, tweeted.

Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union, also called for more strikes and protests, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.

Mass protests have been taking place regularly across France since mid-January, with millions of people expressing their opposition to the government’s plan. Massive strikes have hit transport and education.

The government has argued that reform is needed to keep the finances of the pension system out of the red in the coming years.

“The goal is to balance the bills without raising taxes or cutting pensions. There are several options on the table, but they all include raising the retirement age,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told reporters in January, according to Reuters.

CGT union members are preparing to block traffic on the Paris ring road on March 17.

Dockers blocked the port of Marseille on Friday in protest of the pension changes.

A constitutional solution

The pension reform law passed the French Senate earlier on Thursday but would have been a bigger hurdle in passing the National Assembly, the country’s lower house of parliament.

The session was stopped prematurely due to Borne’s announcement. Lawmakers erupted in chaotic scenes as she explained the government’s decision, fighting to be heard as lawmakers sang the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” and others held signs reading “No to 64 years.”

Borne also criticized far-right legislators in the lower house for not supporting the legislation.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, called on the prime minister to resign.

“After the blow the Prime Minister has just dealt to the French people, by imposing a reform they do not want, I think Elisabeth Borne should leave,” Le Pen tweeted on Thursday.

Pension reform in France, where the right to retire with a full pension at age 62 is highly cherished, is always a highly sensitive issue and all the more so as public discontent over the rising cost of living grows.

But with one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialized world, France also spends more than most other countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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