By Layli Foroudi and Manuel Ausloos
PARIS (Reuters) – Riot police clashed with protesters on Friday evening in Paris as a new demonstration took place against the government’s plans to raise the French state pension age.
The growing unrest, which has resulted in a wave of strikes since the start of the year and rubbish piling up on the streets of Paris, has left President Emmanuel Macron with the gravest challenge to his authority since the so-called ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or ‘Yellow Vest’ protests of December 2018.
Reuters TV broadcast images of tear gas used by police to deal with crowd disorder as protesters gathered in Paris’ Place de la Concorde, near the Assemblee Nationale parliament building.
“Macron, Resign!” chanted some demonstrators, as they squared up to a line of riot police.
Friday’s night trouble followed similar disorder on Thursday, after Macron decided to push through the contested pension overhaul without a parliamentary vote.
The overhaul raises France’s state pension 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 65% 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”, 52-year-old psychologist Nathalie Alquier said in Paris. “It’s just unbearable.”
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 weekend, with a new day of nationwide industrial action scheduled for Thursday.
Teachers’ unions called for strikes next week, which could disrupt the emblematic Baccalaureate high-school exams.
While eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January, and many more local industrial actions, had been largely peaceful, the unrest on Thursday and Friday was reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests in late 2018 over high fuel prices, which forced Macron into a partial U-turn on a carbon tax.
Left-wing and centrist opposition lawmakers filed a motion of no-confidence in parliament on Friday afternoon.
But even though 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 lawmakers from all sides is formed, from the far-left to the far-right.
The leaders of the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party have ruled out such an alliance. None of them had sponsored the first motion of no confidence filed on Friday. 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 lawmakers and half of LR’s 61 lawmakers 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.
He expected it would be the same again this time even if “by trying to by-pass parliament, Macron has already weakened his position”.
Votes in parliament were likely to take place over the weekend or on Monday.
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 on Friday.
(Reporting by Michel Rose, Elizabeth Pineau, Matthieu Protard, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Dominique Vidalon, Kate Etringer, Blandine Henault, Noemie Olive, Matthieu Protard, Forrest Crellin, Layli Foroudi, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Manuel Ausloos; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alex Richardson, Diane Craft and Mark Potter)