PARIS — Opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 staged a new round of protests Saturday to push the government to withdraw the unpopular plan. Determination remained high, but crowds were far smaller than in past protests.
The nationwide marches, the second round of protests in four days and the seventh since January, were bolstered by ongoing strikes in key sectors, from energy to transport and garbage workers. Uncollected trash piled up in Paris and other cities.
Police clashed with troublemakers in several cities, notably Paris, charging, tackling and pepper-spraying intruders dressed in black who set fires to piles of trash along the march route and destroyed bus stops, a street lamp and other urban equipment.
Such “radical elements,” in the language of police, typically join protests to cause trouble. Paris police said 32 people were detained.
Police counted 48,000 protesters in Paris, and the Interior Ministry said there were 368,000 across France — far fewer than the more than 1 million people who marched in cities and towns on Tuesday to denounce a plan widely regarded as unjust.
The leftist union CGT, which typically gives far higher attendance estimates than police, said 300,00 people protested in Paris and more than 1 million around France, numbers still lower than its counts from past protests.
Geraldine Carbonell, a 47-year-old public housing employee, said it is wrong to make everyone work until age 64.
“We are not all equal in as far as the jobs we are doing are concerned,” she said. “Sixty-four years whether you’re a worker or an executive, is not the same.”
The protest marches coincided with debate on the government’s pension reform bill in the Senate, where the clock was ticking to meet a Sunday midnight vote deadline before the legislation moves to the next step in a complex process.
Macron’s refusal to accept union leaders’ request for a meeting has fed the determination of protesters, the CGT union leader said ahead of Saturday’s march in Paris.
“There’s more anger,” Philippe Martinez insisted, adding that refusing to meet the union leaders organizing the protests was an insult, amounting to “giving the finger.”
Instead, Macron wrote a letter to unions. He said he chose to “make the French work a little longer” because other options would have involved “decreasing pensions, raising taxes or letting our children and grandchildren carry the financial burden.”
On Friday, the government asked for a special procedure to speed up the process by scheduling a single vote on the entire bill, rather than separate votes on each article and hundreds of amendments.
If the bill is approved by the conservative-controlled Senate, as expected, it would continue next week on its way through France’s legislative process. The government has not ruled out invoking a special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.
Laurent Berger, head of the moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labour, or CFDT, said that using the special power, even if legal, would be undemocratic. “The fight is not lost,” he said.
In a new bid to up the pressure, 13 unions “solemnly” urged the government “to quickly organize a citizens’ consultation,” without saying what form it should take. The unions said a petition to that effect had received more than a million signatures.
Earlier, Martinez, the CGT leader, suggested a referendum on the retirement plan.
“Since (Macron) is so sure of himself, he should consult the people,” Martinez said. “We’ll see the response.”
Polls consistently show a majority of people opposed to the retirement plan. However, turnout in morning protests in several cities, including in Nice, the Riviera city, was lower than during Tuesday’s marches. The Paris march also appeared thinner. No official figures were immediately available.
Berger, the CFDT leader, brushed aside the numbers, which unions cited in the past by unions to demonstrate that popular opinion stood against the retirement plan.
“Sometimes when there are less people in the streets, there is more anger in the head,” he said before the Paris march.
More protests are scheduled for Wednesday, the day a joint committee made up of seven senators and seven National Assembly lawmakers meet to seek a compromise on the texts approved in the two houses.