French Protests: Risk Of A "Yellow Vest" Rerun
The pushing through of a bill to raise the retirement age in France has caused widespread, sometimes violent, protests. The government is worried the movement will spread, as unions warn the protests are just beginning.
PARIS — The peaceful ambiance last month of anti-government demonstrations in France has given way to something else. But what exactly is the new nature of the protests? Are we witnessing the emergence of a social movement destined to last, and paralyze the country like the so-called "yellow vests" five years ago?
Since last Thursday, when the French government passed a bill on pension reform increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64, President Emmanuel Macron and his government have been facing a new form of protest. It is more radical, sometimes more violent, but also more diffuse and especially uncontrollable.
In Paris, after two evenings of "wild" demonstrations, people were forbidden from gathering and protesting at Place de la Concorde, one of the city's major public squares, on Saturday evening and the area was placed under heavy police surveillance. The problem was only averted because another demonstration took place in another square, Place d'Italie, leading to clashes with the police.
In several cities in France, spontaneous rallies and demonstrations took place, often led with violence. Many offices of elected officials were vandalized and the Minister of the Interior was asked for increased protection for elected officials.
Macron on the defensive
The sparks of violence and dispersed nature of the current protests recall the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) movement that began in 2018, lashing out at rising gasoline prices, with weekly protests and occasional riots throughout France.
"It is too early to say whether there are similarities with the "yellow vests" movement or the Nuit Debout movement [unleashed against the 2016 labor law]. All of this remains very uncertain and no one can say what it may lead to," says a government source.
The current protest is based on a strong opposition in public opinion to the use of Article 49.3 — which allows the government to force passage of a bill without a vote — to push through the retirement bill. According to Harris Interactive, 82% of the French population believe that using this article is a "bad thing" and 71% think that the government should resign.
Some 65% of them also wish for the movement against the pension reform to continue, even after the parliamentary process is over. The use of the 49.3 acted as a detonator of anger with unpredictable consequences. Left-wing parties are leading the movement.
A file photo of 2018 of Yellow Vests protesting in the streets and march to raise attention to the increase of social and economic issues in France following the presidential election.
Warnings by the unions
"This movement is remarkably calm and pacifist. We are dealing with a power that has made a mockery of the world and you are surprised that people are upset," said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the La France Insoumise group, on Sunday.
We cannot prohibit people from demonstrating. We need the youth to mobilize more massively.
The left can still appeal to the Constitutional Council, but it also wants to maintain pressure in the streets of the city.
Last Friday, the deputy leader of the Greens Sandrine Rousseau even called on the police to join the movement and put the responsibility for the unrest back on Emmanuel Macron. "There were millions of people in the street in a completely peaceful, joyful and determined way and he has not heard anything. Now, his radicalism refers to a form of radicalism in the street," she said.
For their part, unions are also hoping for a broadening of the movement, counting in particular on sectoral strikes such as in the energy sector, along with the mobilization of youth.
"We cannot prohibit people from demonstrating. We need the youth to mobilize more massively," said French trade unionist Philippe Martinez, adding that Emmanuel Macron has not heard the "warnings" of the unions.
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