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Amid massive demonstrations, Macron delays Charles’ visit

By DANICA KIRKA, Associated Press
Published: March 24, 2023, 7:58am

PARIS (AP) — Ongoing unrest across France and calls for a new round of demonstrations against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension plan persuaded officials to postpone a planned state visit next week by Britain’s King Charles III.

Charles had been scheduled to arrive in France on Sunday to celebrate France and Britain’s renewed friendship. But the protests and strikes against Macron’s decision to raise France’s retirement age from 62 to 64 promised to impact his visit, with workers refusing to roll out the red carpet for the king’s arrival.

Violence peaked during Thursday’s ninth union-organized nationwide marches. Over 450 protesters were arrested in Paris and beyond, as demonstrations nationwide drew more than a million people.

There were scattered protest actions on Friday. Train traffic was slowed, rows of trucks blocked access to Marseille’s port for several hours and debris littered the streets of Paris.

Macron has made the proposed pension changes the priority of his second term, arguing they are needed to keep the pension system from diving into deficit as France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.

Anger over the plan has increasingly turned into broader opposition to Macron’s leadership, both in parliament and on the streets. His insistence this week that the retirement measure be implemented by the end of the year, prompting critics to describe him as “self-satisfied,” “out of touch” and “offensive.”

During his first term, Macron’s government made other changes it said would make France’s labor market more flexible and revitalize the economy. Those include making it easier to hire and fire workers, cutting business taxes, and making it more difficult for the unemployed to claim benefits. Critics argue the changes fray an important social safety net.

Countries across Europe have been raising pension ages. Retirement rules vary widely from country to country, making direct comparisons difficult. The official retirement age in the U.S. is now 67.

Macron’s plan would provide that the French must work 43 years to earn a full pension, or wait until they turn 67, as the law now calls for. Opponents have proposed other solutions, including higher taxes on the wealthy or companies. Polls show most French people oppose raising the retirement age.

The government forced the bill through parliament last week, using a constitutional power, and the text is being reviewed by France’s Constitutional Council.

Macron condemned the violent behavior that has taken place at some of the protests, saying “violence has no place in a democracy.”

He said “common sense and friendship” required delaying King Charles’ visit, adding that it likely would have become a protest target, creating a “detestable situation.”

“We would not be serious … to make a state visit in the middle of protests,” the French leader told a news conference after a summit in Brussels. He said he took the initiative to call Charles on Friday morning, and that the visit likely would be rescheduled for the summer.

Charles and Queen Consort Camilla planned to visit both France and Germany during the king’s first trip abroad as Britain’s monarch. He still plans to go to Germany.

Charles had been scheduled to visit the city of Bordeaux on Tuesday, coinciding with the tenth round of nationwide strikes and protests since January. The heavy wooden door of the elegant Bordeaux City Hall was destroyed by fire Thursday night by people taking part in an unauthorized demonstration.

Bordeaux wine industry officials expressed regret that Charles would not visit next week, but were glad the visit would still happen.

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“We are of course disappointed Charles won’t come now but we clearly understand why,” said Cecile Ha of the Bordeaux Wine Council. “We are looking forward to welcoming him at the end of summer, which is great time for the vineyards as they are very lively at this time of year before the harvests.”

French authorities have blamed radicals for the protests, but critics have also questioned the role of French police. The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said Friday it was worried by the use of violence against a largely “peaceful movement.”

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 441 police officers and gendarmes were injured Thursday. He added that 1,000 trash bins were set on fire in the French capital; overflowing garbage cans have become a symbol of the protests during a weeks-long strike by sanitation workers.

Fires in Paris that were intentionally lit in narrow or inaccessible alleys on Thursday night alarmed both city officials and residents. Firefighters and residents worked to tame the flames that rose to the second story of an apartment building in the chic Palais Royal area.

Oil refineries have been another target. On Friday, emboldened protesters headed to the Fos-sur-mer oil depot near Marseille and created a blockade to stop trucks from entering and leaving. However, fuel supplies to Paris from the large Gonfreville-L’Orcher refinery in Normandy resumed after police intervened, French Energy Transition Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said.

Fearing disruptions in coming days, France’s Civil Aviation Authority requested the cancellation of one-third of flights at Paris’ second airport, Orly, on Sunday, and 20% on Monday.