PARIS — Piles of stinking rubbish lay uncollected for days next to people in Paris’ posh street cafes. Burnt-out cars and burned-out tires litter some roads in the French capital.
Paris is no stranger to political and popular unrest, but in recent days thousands have taken to the streets and stormed police barricades, receiving tear gas and water cannons in response.
Protesters across the country are angry over President Emmanuel Macron’s long-promised plans to raise the national retirement age from 62 to 64 amid an acute cost-of-living crisis exacerbated by rising inflation.
The French government says that with life expectancy rising, reform is essential to ensure the pension system remains intact. But critics of the policy are not convinced.
Their anger only increased after Macron, faced with a divided parliament and without the support of the right-wing Republican Party, instructed Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to invoke Article 49.3 of the Constitution on Thursday, allowing legislation to be passed without a vote from lawmakers. accepted.
Thousands gathered on Place de la Concorde, opposite the National Assembly building, on Thursday, and sporadic protests continued into the night. Large black plumes of smoke rose early Friday over Gare du Lyon, a busy train station on the east side of the city.
Protests also took place in many cities, including Rennes in the west and the southern port city of Marseille.
According to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, about 310 people were arrested.
The next nationwide strike day — the eighth in the past three months — is scheduled for next Thursday, unions have said.
In the meantime, the piles of rubbish on the famous streets of Paris are a highly visible – and sharp – symbol of the anger of public sector workers over the pension plans. The City Hall of Paris estimates that there are about 13,000 tons on the street.
The city’s huge tourist economy continued anyway, with tours of key landmarks. But the experience had some added and unwanted features.
Doris Arseguel, navigating a small group of Brazilian tourists through the narrow cobbled streets of the garbage-strewn 5th arrondissement, told them to be careful of rats, who are having a field day.
“It is very difficult to show tourists the beauty of Paris with all the rubbish and barricades,” 53-year-old Arseguel told NBC News. “The beauty of Paris is now completely covered. It has become too much.”
The anti-reform case has also been enthusiastically taken up by young people, who are forced to work longer under tighter financial constraints.
At the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV school in central Paris, about 100 students blocked the entrance on Friday morning in protest against the policies of Macron, an illustrious former student.
A stone’s throw from the 18th-century Panthéon, the monument that houses the remains of the French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, the students applauded and cheered wildly, chanting: “Macron, you’re done! Your high school is on the street!
“I want my voice to be heard because that’s the only way we can show that we don’t agree with what’s going on. It is important that young people tell what they feel, because without a voice you don’t count,” says Emma Mendzesel, 16.
Soren Lafarge, also 16, said the students made their voices heard despite not having the right to strike or vote in elections.
“We are here to show that we support the movement against the people’s pension reform and that we are all against that kind of democracy where you can pass a law without a vote and we are advocating for better democracy,” he said. .
This week’s civil unrest was the capital’s worst since the gillet jaunes, or yellow vests, protests in 2018 and 2019, which were largely triggered by gas costs but grew into a populist movement against Macron’s centrist, technocratic government.
Those protests ended in a partial reversal, with Macron scrapping a carbon tax increase. But he is much less likely to reverse the retirement age, which was a key manifesto leading up to his re-election last summer.
But the saga is far from over.
Opposition lawmakers say they will introduce no-confidence motions against Prime Minister Borne, who pushed reform through and called for her to step down. Parliamentary votes on this are expected over the weekend or on Monday.
But even if they succeed in removing her from office, Macron is unlikely to change course, according to Rainbow Murray, an expert in French politics at Queen Mary University in London.
Macron is safe, he has been elected for a five-year term. But his reputation is damaged. This is clearly bad and not what he wanted. He wanted a parliamentary majority, but didn’t get it,” Murray said.
Borne, she added, “runs the risk of being the scapegoat for clearing herself of all this.”
Unlike most political leaders in such a feverish situation, Macron may not be so concerned, Murray said.
“He’s well positioned to do it: He’s a second-term president, he can’t run for a third term, and unlike pretty much every president before him, he doesn’t care about his party’s legacy in the same way, because his party was created around him – his party he is. she said.
“I’m sure people in his party are concerned about this, but he’s not loyal to the bigger picture the way others do,” Murray said. “In a way he has political capital to burn, and he is burning it.”
Nancy Ing and Bill O’Reilly reported from Paris and Patrick Smith from London.