French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday 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 violent unrest overnight.
Cars were torched in Paris and other French cities in the evening during otherwise peaceful demonstrations involving several thousand people. Trade unions urged workers to step up and briefly blocked the Paris ring road on Friday.
“Something fundamental happened, and that is that, immediately, spontaneous mobilisations took place throughout the country,” hard-left 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 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 took place in cities including Toulon on Friday, and more were planned for the weekend. A new day of nationwide industrial action is scheduled for Thursday.
While eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January, and many more local industrial action, had so far been largely peaceful, the unrest overnight was reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests which 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 and he promised to crack down on trouble-makers.
“Opposition is legitimate, protests are legitimate but causing mayhem is not,” he told RTL radio.
Opposition lawmakers said they would file motions of no-confidence in parliament later on Friday.
But, even if 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. Individual LR lawmakers said they would break ranks, but the no confidence bill would require all of the other opposition MPs and half LR 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 will be the same again this time even if “by trying to bypass parliament, Macron has already weakened his position”.
Votes in parliament were likely to take place over the weekend or 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.
Amid the unrest on Thursday evening, someone had tagged on a shop front: “Let’s destroy what destroys us.”