French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since the so-called Yellow Vest protests after his decision to push through a contested pension overhaul without a vote prompted a wave of protests.
A new demonstration got under way in Paris yesterday evening, as protesters gathered in the Place de la Concorde, near the parliament building, following protests on Thursday which were marred by violence.
Demonstrators started off a fire burning in Place de la Concorde yesterday as they faced up to a line of riot police, with some chanting “Macron, Resign!”
“Something fundamental happened, and that is that, immediately, spontaneous mobilisations took place throughout the country,” left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said. “It goes without saying that I encourage them, I think that’s where it’s happening.”
The pension overhaul raises France’s retirement age by two years to 64, which the government says is essential to ensure the system does not go bust. Unions, and most voters, disagree.
The French are deeply attached to keeping the official retirement age at 62, which is among the lowest in OECD countries.
More than eight out of 10 people are unhappy with the government’s decision to skip a vote in parliament, and 65pc want strikes and protests to continue, a Toluna Harris Interactive poll for RTL radio showed.
Going ahead without a vote “is a denial of democracy, a total denial of what has been happening in the streets for several weeks”, psychologist Nathalie Alquier said in Paris.
A broad alliance of France’s main unions said they would continue their mobilisation to try and force a U-turn on the changes. Protests are planned for this week, with a new day of nationwide industrial action scheduled for Thursday.
Teachers’ unions called for strikes next week, which could disrupt the emblematic Baccalaureate secondary-school exams.
While eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January, and many more local industrial actions, had so far been largely peaceful, the unrest on Thursday was reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests that erupted in late 2018 over high fuel prices and forced Macron into a partial U-turn on a carbon tax.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said some 310 people had been arrested by police. “Opposition is legitimate, protests are legitimate but causing mayhem is not,” he told RTL radio.
Left-wing and centrist opposition lawmakers filed a motion of no-confidence in parliament yesterday afternoon.
But, even though Mr Macron lost his absolute majority in the lower house of parliament in elections last year, there was little chance this would go through – unless a surprise alliance of MPs from all sides is formed, from the far-left to the far-right.
The leaders of the conservative Les Republicains party have ruled out such an alliance. None of them had sponsored the first motion of no confidence filed yesterday. The far-right was expected to file another later in the day.
Individual LR lawmakers have said they could break ranks, but the no-confidence bill would require all of the other opposition MPs and half of LR’s 61 to go through, which is a tall order.
“So far, French governments have usually won in such votes of no confidence,” said Berenberg chief economist Holger Schmieding.
Votes in parliament were likely to take place this weekend or on Monday.
Mr Macron will want to turn the page quickly, with government officials already preparing more socially minded reforms. He can also choose, at some point, to fire Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who has been at the forefront of the pension debate.
But either or both moves may do little to quell anger on the streets. Neither of them had made public comments yesterday.