The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France battered by protests over pension plans as Macron holds firm

Protesters holding flares participate in a rally Tuesday in Paris against the government's planned pension overhaul. (Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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PARIS — France was on a knife-edge Tuesday as thousands of people once again took to the streets in protest — and the government showed little sign of backing down.

Across France, large crowds marched for the 10th time against a push to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. While the main demonstration in Paris was largely peaceful, there were clashes between protesters and police in the capital and regional cities, as well as 55 arrests in Paris, according to local authorities.

In the western city of Nantes, protesters lit cars and a bank on fire; in Rennes, demonstrators threw projectiles at police, photos and videos from the scene showed.

France protests: What to know as Macron forces a retirement-age hike

Despite weeks of protest and the escalating threat of violence, French President Emmanuel Macron has refused to reverse course on his pension overhaul, turning the demonstrations into a test of wills.

The 45-year-old leader is staking his reputation and legacy on a plan to raise the minimum retirement age, arguing it is necessary to protect the future of the French pension system. But the plan — and the way he pushed it through — remains deeply unpopular, with many vowing to demonstrate until he backs down.

Protesters flooded Paris streets March 28 in an ongoing show of anger over French President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans. (Video: James Cornsilk for The Washington Post)

“The stakes are very high for Macron,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm.

As the main march in Paris got underway Tuesday, protesters passed crowded cafes, dancing students and unions’ sausage stands.

According to the Interior Ministry, there were 740,000 protesters across the country, compared with over a million in Thursday’s demonstrations, though the unions have given much higher figures for both days.

CFDT, one of the main unions, tweeted on Tuesday that union leaders were invited to meet with Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne next week. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Another day of protest is planned for April 6.

In the short term, Macron must find a way to calm demonstrations that have grown in size and ferocity, with protesters destroying cars and buildings and police responding, in some instances, with what rights groups call arbitrary and indiscriminate force toward peaceful protesters.

Videos circulating on social media Tuesday showed riot police pushing back crowds in Paris by beating people with batons — even as they duck to protect themselves.

Police using ‘excessive force’ at France protests, rights groups say

“Peaceful protests aren’t being heard, so it’s normal that people get upset,” said Jacqueline Sellen, a 65-year-old pensioner. “Ultimately, it’s Macron who is responsible for the violence.”

As protesters filled the streets, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin hosted some 60 police officers and firefighters, among 900 he said have been injured during demonstrations in recent weeks. In remarks to the officers, he conveyed a message of “reassurance and thanks.”

The question now is whether the escalating protests will force Macron to change course.

“If he is forced to pull the bill, there are major domestic political implications for his ability to do anything meaningful for the rest of his term,” Rahman said. “It would be a huge blow to credibility and his standing.”

To a large extent, Macron knew what he was getting into.

France has a long and proud tradition of fighting for labor rights. When Macron tried to push for a pension overhaul in 2019, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. A 1995 push was similarly thwarted.

Macron argues that the change is necessary given rising life expectancy. Government data suggests, for instance, that with a retirement age of 62 there would only be 1.2 taxpaying workers for each retiree by 2070.

The system is already quite expensive; state retirement spending was 13.6 percent of France’s gross domestic product in 2021, compared with 11 percent in Spain and 10 percent in Germany, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Critics of the pension plan say it will disproportionately affect blue-collar workers and deepen inequality.

Lower-income citizens contribute a higher proportion of their salaries to the pension system compared with those with the highest incomes, said Justine Hervé, a French labor economist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

“Poor people are going to carry more of the burden, percentage-wise,” she said. “And they probably also will enjoy less of their retirement because they have lower life expectancy than the richer people involved.”

For many, the problem is not just the pension plan, but how Macron’s government has pushed for it, invoking Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows the executive to force bills through the lower house of the legislature without a vote. Macron’s critics — and many on the street — see the move as antidemocratic.

The protests appear to be increasingly mobilizing students, prompting concern from French officials.

France’s territorial intelligence service warned Monday that incidents of police violence against protesters could be “extremely mobilizing among young people,” according to Le Figaro newspaper.

Student turnout appeared to high on Tuesday, as several high school and university campuses remained blocked off.

“We all know someone who has been beaten, or who has been in police custody,” said Lou Boudet Marin, 21, who attended Tuesday’s protest with two friends.

“I have the feeling that even people who were not necessarily [against the retirement plans] are starting to take part in the movement,” agreed her friend, Nora Melot, 20.

Macron, so far, has been defiant. “Do you think it gives me pleasure to pass this reform? No,” he said in an interview with TF1 and France 2 TV last week.

“I’m choosing the general interest,” he continued. “And if I must shoulder unpopularity, then I will.”

Rauhala reported from Brussels and Parker from Washington.