March 24, 2023
Strikes and mass protests continue to paralyze France as millions took to the streets to fight the government’s plan to raise the retirement age.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the left-wing France Unbowed party (La France Insoumise) praised what he called “the biggest social mobilization since May ’68” as demonstrations were held in more than 250 French towns and cities on Wednesday.
Protesters blockaded train and bus stations. Gas and energy workers, teachers, rail workers, and others took part in a day’s general strike called by unions, with air, rail, and road transport severely disrupted throughout the country.
Union leaders said President Emmanuel Macron’s national address on Wednesday, in which he claimed the legislation raising the retirement age to 64 would continue its “democratic course,” despite having used powers of decree to impose it because he could not get it through parliament, had inflamed public anger.
Leader of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) Philippe Martinez said the president had “thrown a gas tank on the fire” with the televised message.
At Paris’s Gare de Lyon train station, hundreds of workers blocked the tracks, brandishing flares and chanting: “We will continue until it’s withdrawn.”
Striker Fabien Villedieu of the SUD-rail union said the strikes on the SNCF rail operator would be open-ended, with “actions every day everywhere, in all the small and big cities of France.” He asked, “What do we need to do to make the government listen?”
Striking bus driver Nadia Belhoum said: “The president of the republic is not a king. He should listen to the people.”
Tens of thousands rallied in Paris’s Bastille Square, waving union flags and chanting: “We are here, even if Macron doesn’t want it, we are here.”
Clashes between police and demonstrators took place in many cities, with police unleashing water cannons at protesters in Rennes and violence breaking out in Lorient, also in Brittany, resulting in damage to a police station.
The CGT also warned that it had instructed its members working in Mobilier National, which provides furniture and protocol items for public buildings, not to help prepare reception rooms for Britain’s King Charles III, who was due to begin a state visit on Sunday.
“We will not provide furnishings, red carpets, or flags,” the union federation said.
French analysts say the timing of the long-planned visit, with the president appearing alongside the unelected king as Paris remains piled high with uncollected garbage, would be a public relations disaster for the Elysee Palace.
It was announced Friday that the British monarch has canceled his visit.