At least 310 people have been detained across France as the embattled government faces backlash for forcing through pension reforms that will see the country’s retirement age raised by two years.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told French radio RTL that most of the arrests made on Thursday night – 258 – were in Paris. Although calm had returned to the capital’s streets by Friday morning, government ministers were on the defensive following Thursday night’s impromptu protests.
The French government on Thursday forced through controversial plans to raise the country’s retirement age from 62 to 64, a move that has inflamed the country’s weeks-long protest movement.
Government spokesperson Olivier Veran and Budget Minister Gabriel Attal both repeated President Emmanuel Macron’s claim that the government hadn’t wanted to use its constitutional power to push through the law. They were speaking to French outlets, LCI and France Inter respectively.
“If we don’t do [the reforms] today, it’s much more brutal measures that we will have to do in future,” Attal said.
Protesters briefly blocked Paris’ ring road on Friday morning in protest at the pension reform, causing long delays to the morning commute, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.
And a strike by garbage workers that has left many streets in Paris full of trash bags is continuing. Interior minister Darmanin said he would order police to force some of them to work.
“I respect the strike of the garbage collectors,” he said, “however, what is not acceptable is unsanitary conditions.”
In a note Thursday night, the interior ministry, in the context of the reaction to the pension reforms, called on security forces to “firmly maintain” protections for elected officials in France, who, “are sometimes the object of threats, insults, or even malicious acts such as damage to property.”
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne announced in the National Assembly earlier Thursday that Macron would trigger special constitutional powers to enact the proposed pension reform bill.
“We cannot bet on the future of our pensions,” Borne said amid jeers and chants from lawmakers. “This reform is necessary.”
Labor leaders in France called for new demonstrations following Borne’s announcement, with several thousand people converging at Paris’ Place de la Concorde and in several other cities in France on Thursday evening.
“By resorting to [constitutional article] 49.3, the government demonstrates that it does not have a majority to approve the two-year postponement of the legal retirement age,” tweeted Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, one of the unions leading the protests.
Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, also called for more strikes and protests, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.
Massive protests have been held regularly throughout France since mid-January, with millions turning out to voice their opposition to the government’s plan. Mass strikes have hit transport and education.
The government has argued that reform is necessary to keep the pension system’s finances out of the red in the coming years.
“The aim is to balance the accounts without raising taxes or cutting pensions. Various options are on the table, but all include raising the retirement age,” government spokesman Olivier Veran told journalists in January, according to Reuters.
A constitutional workaround
The pension reform bill passed the French Senate earlier on Thursday, but would have faced more of a hurdle passing the National Assembly – the lower house of the country’s parliament.
The session was stopped early for Borne’s announcement. Lawmakers erupted into chaotic scenes as she explained the government’s decision, fighting to be heard as lawmakers sang French national anthem “La Marseillaise” and others held signs reading “No to 64 years.”
Borne also criticized far-right lawmakers in the lower house for not backing the legislation.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, called for the prime minister to step down.
“After the slap that the Prime Minister just gave the French people, by imposing a reform which they do not want, I think that Elisabeth Borne should go,” tweeted Le Pen on Thursday.
Pension reform in France, where the right to retire on a full pension at 62 is deeply cherished, is always a highly sensitive issue and even more so now with social discontent mounting over the surging cost of living.
But with one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialized world, France also spends more than most other countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.