Workers went on strike and demonstrators marched around France on Thursday for the first big day of protests since President Emmanuel Macron shoved an increase of the retirement age to 64 from 62 through Parliament without a full vote, a test of the unions’ ability to maintain their pressure and the president’s ability to weather it.
Mr. Macron’s decision last week to force through the pension bill and the subsequent failure to remove his government with a no-confidence vote ended the parliamentary battle over the overhaul, and it set the stage for the next phase: An increasingly bitter stalemate between an inflexible president and his determined opponents.
Mr. Macron is hoping to ride out the protests until they fizzle so that the pension changes can be implemented by the end of the year. Labor unions want to sustain pressure from the street and with strikes, and they are also placing their hopes on legal challenges that Mr. Macron’s political opponents have filed against his pension overhaul.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were expected to take to the streets around the country, for the ninth day of nationwide protests since January. The size of the protests will be key for the united front of labor unions that has spearheaded the marches, drawing over a million people on some occasions but failing to stop an inflexible Mr. Macron so far.
“It was a social crisis, and we have moved to a political crisis — one might even say a crisis of the regime, because the president is increasingly isolated,” said Karel Yon, a sociologist and expert on French unions and social movements at the University of Paris Nanterre.
Mr. Macron’s decision to push the bill through without the vote has kept the labor movement united and fueled the anger that has energized the protests, Mr. Yon said. He noted that local blockages of factories or roads, nighttime youth demonstrations, and other sporadic and sometimes more radical actions were now emerging “outside of the traditional union framework,” without undermining it so far.
“It’s a continuum,” Mr. Yon said.
National train traffic was heavily disrupted on Thursday, and many subway lines in the Paris metro were running at half capacity or less. Protesters also blocked road access to a terminal at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, and students blocked or demonstrated in front of dozens of high schools and universities. About one in five teachers had walked out, according to the Education Ministry.
Many oil refineries and fuel depots around the country were still blocked or shut down, with growing fears that gas stations could run dry despite efforts by authorities to commandeer workers in certain areas.
In a television interview on Wednesday, the French president said his only regret was his inability to convince a skeptical France that the age increase was urgently necessary to stave off future deficits in the pension system — an urgency and a strategy that his opponents firmly dispute.
“There aren’t 36 solutions,” Mr. Macron said. “This reform is necessary.”
But Mr. Macron remained unapologetic about using a constitutional tool to force the pension bill through the lower house of Parliament without a vote last week, triggering a no-confidence vote that his government barely survived and escalating the unrest that has rattled France over the past weeks.
“How far is he prepared to go in his blindness?” the Confédération Générale du Travail, or C.G.T., France’s second-largest union, said in a statement before the protests on Thursday. “This is no longer contempt, it is madness! While the social and political crisis is taking hold, what is the head of state playing at? What is he looking for?”
Labor unions organized several mass marches around the country in the months before Mr. Macron rammed through the pension changes, and smaller, scattered and spontaneous protests broke out in cities around the country afterward. Many were peaceful marches or temporary road blocks. But others were marred by burned trash, vandalized property and clashes with riot police.
On Wednesday Mr. Macron warned that he would not tolerate any “excesses” in comparing violent protesters to the mob that assaulted the United States Congress in 2021. About 12,000 police officers were deployed across France on Thursday to secure the protests, including 5,000 in Paris.
The response to the protests has also fueled accusations of police brutality, large-scale and unnecessary corralling of demonstrators, and unwarranted preventive arrests — recriminations that were familiar during the Yellow Vest protests that rocked France for weeks during Mr. Macron’s first term.
Claire Hédon, France’s defender of rights — an official ombudsman who citizens can petition if they believe their rights have been violated — warned in a statement this week that she was “worried” by videos circulating on social media and by press reports of police misconduct, and would “remain vigilant.”
Mr. Yon, the sociologist, said that the more radical protests that had emerged over the past week were reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests — a spontaneous movement that emerged outside of a union or political framework because of anger over a fuel tax but that morphed into much broader demonstrations of anger against Mr. Macron’s top-down governing style.
Mr. Macron’s inflexibility and refusal to change course despite the unpopularity of the pension overhaul has “reactivated the feeling of a disconnect with the state and its institutions” that was prevalent during the Yellow Vest crisis, Mr. Yon said.
And, he added, “the Yellow Vests were the only social movement of the past years that made the government back down.”
Laurent Berger, the head of the C.F.D.T., or French Democratic Confederation of Labor, spoke about the conflict in blunt terms on the BFMTV news channel on Thursday: “There is a democratic fracture in this country.”
While the pension bill has now become law, it will be reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which examines legislation to ensure it complies with the French Constitution. A ruling is expected within the next month.
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