PARIS -- Police were out in force across France on Saturday as protesters held a sometimes restive fourth round of nationwide demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to reform the country's pension system.
Over 960,000 people marched in Paris, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and other cities, according to the Interior Ministry. Protesters hoped to keep up the pressure on the government to back down, and further action is planned for Feb. 16.
In the French capital, authorities counted some 93,000 participants, the most to demonstrate in Paris against the pension changes since the protests started last month.
The weekend demonstrations drew young people and others opposed to the pension proposals who weren’t able to attend the previous three days of action, all held on weekdays.
This time, though, rail worker strikes did not accompany the demonstrations, allowing trains and the Paris Metro to run Saturday. However, an unexpected strike by air traffic controllers meant that up to half of flights to and from Paris’ second largest airport, Orly, were canceled Saturday afternoon.
In Paris, some workers and students who wanted to voice opposition attended the protests for the first time, owing to heavy weekday workloads.
“We often hear that we should be too young to care, but with rising inflation, soaring electricity prices, this reform will impact our families,” Elisa Haddad, 18. said. “It is my first demonstration because I couldn’t attend with uni. It is important that the voice of (France’s) parents and students is heard.”
French lawmakers began a rowdy debate earlier this week on the pension bill to raise the minimum retirement age for a full state pension from 62 to 64. It’s the flagship legislation of Macron’s second term.
Saturday’s protests featured flashes of unrest. One car and several trash bins were set on fire on a central Parisian boulevard as police charged the crowd and dispersed protesters with tear gas. Paris police said officers they arrested eight people for infractions ranging from possession of a firearm to vandalism.
Some demonstrators walked as families through the French capital's Place de la Republique and carried emotional banners. “I don’t want my parents to die at work,” read one, held by a teenage boy.
The protests are a crucial test both for Macron and his opponents. The government has insisted it’s determined to push through Macron’s election pledge to reform France’s generous pension system. Of the 38 member nations of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, France is among countries that spend the most years in retirement.
The president has called the reforms “indispensable” for ensuring the long-term survival of the country’s pension system and noted that workers in neighboring countries retire years later.
Despite opinion polls consistently showing growing opposition to the reform and his own popularity shrinking, Macron insisted that he’s living up to a key campaign pledge he made when he swept to power in 2017 and before his April 2022 reelection.
His government is now facing a harsh political battle in parliament that could span weeks or months.
Strong popular resentment will strengthen efforts by labor unions and left-wing legislators to try to block the bill.
Unions issued a joint statement Saturday, calling the government “deaf” and demanding French officials scrap the bill. They threatened to cause a nationwide “shutdown” from March 7, if their demands were not met.
During the previous day of protests four days ago, over 750,000 people marched in many French cities, significantly fewer than on the previous two protest days in January in which over a million people took to the streets.
Nico Garriga in Paris contributed