Paris: Fresh strikes and protests roiled France on Tuesday with a record number of police deployed, as President Emmanuel Macron remained defiant over a pensions reform that is sparking turmoil in the country.
The day of action is the tenth since protests began in mid-January against the law, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Last Thursday saw the most violent clashes yet between protesters and security forces, as tensions erupted into pitched battles on the streets of Paris and police reported 457 arrests across France and injuries to 441 officers.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 13,000 members of the security forces would be deployed on Tuesday - 5,500 of them in Paris alone. The number, a record, was justified by “a major risk to public order”.
Nearly two weeks after Macron rammed the new pensions law through parliament using a special provision sidestepping a vote in the lower house, unions have vowed no let-up in mass protests to get the government to back down.
A state visit to France by Britain’s King Charles III, which had been due to begin on Sunday, was postponed because of the unrest.
Macron on Monday instead met Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, other cabinet ministers and senior lawmakers for crisis talks at the Elysee Palace.
“We need to continue to hold out a hand to the unions,” a participant in the meeting quoted Macron as saying, although the president rejected any revision of the pensions law.
In a conciliatory gesture, Borne has scheduled talks over three weeks with members of parliament, political parties and local authorities, while still hoping to meet union leaders.
She is expected to offer worker representatives new measures designed to ease the impact of the pensions law targeting physically demanding jobs, conditions for older workers and retraining.
But early reactions were not promising for the prime minister.
Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union, said he would accept the offer of talks but only if the reform was first “put to one side”.
On Tuesday, he also called for the appointment of a mediator between unions and the government saying this would be “a gesture in favour of cooling off, and finding a way out”.
Hard-left CGT union leader Philippe Martinez said: “The aim is the withdrawal” of the pensions law.
But government spokesman Olivier Veran said the law was no longer up for discussion.
“It’s in the past now,” he said.
The protest movement against the pension reform has turned into the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second mandate.
A poll by Odoxa published Tuesday showed his approval rating at just 30 percent, down six percentage points from a month ago.
Up to 900,000 people were expected to protest nationwide Tuesday, a police source said, including 100,000 in Paris.
Young people were prominent in Tuesday’s protests, with many blockading universities and high schools.
‘Not going to make it’
“I agree with the protesters,” said Yasmine Mounib, a 19-year old student in Lille, northern France.
“But they should keep some trains running for students. This is costing me my education,” she said, adding that she was going to miss her 8am class although she got up at 4.
Carole Guibert, a high school teacher in Douai, also in northern France, was also worried.
“I told my pupils that I would teach my class, but I’m not going to make it,” she said.
The head of the French Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, said Tuesday violence accompanying protests was “an alarming symptom of the state of the social fabric” in France.
Veran, meanwhile, said that the government was a “bulwark against illegitimate violence”.
Protesters in Nantes, western France, blocked access roads to the city, creating 45 kilometres of congestion early Tuesday.
Mass transit in Paris was heavily affected, with traffic both on metros and suburban trains disrupted.
Rubbish collectors in the capital are continuing their strike, with close to 8,000 tonnes of garbage piled up in the streets as of Sunday.
Adding to the blockage, workers at an incineration plant just outside Paris stopped work on Monday.
About 15 percent of service stations in France are short of petrol because of refinery strikes.
France’s civil aviation authority told airlines to cut some of their scheduled flights for the rest of the week.
The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, was closed on Monday after workers blocked entry to the attraction.
French industrial action comes a day after a major strike brought much of Germany’s air traffic, rail service and commuter lines to a halt as workers demand wage hikes in the face of brisk inflation.
It also comes only days after protesters and police engaged in major clashes at a protest over water storage facilities in Sainte-Soline in southwestern France.
French police have come under severe criticism for heavy-handed tactics and the IGPN, the internal affairs unit of the French police, has launched 17 investigations into incidents since the pensions protests began.