French security forces clashed with protesters on Saturday as campaigners sought to stop the construction of reservoirs for the agricultural industry in the southwest of the country.
The violent scenes in Sainte-Soline in western France followed days of violent protests nationwide over president Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform that prompted the cancellation of a visit by King Charles III.
Despite an official ban on the gathering in Sainte-Soline, thousands of people attended a “high-risk” protest against the deployment of new water-storage infrastructure for agricultural irrigation. Local authorities said at least 6,000 people marched, while organisers estimated about 25,000 turned out.
More than 3,000 members of the security forces were deployed to contain the demonstration after officials warned that up to 1,500 “violent activists”, including some from Italy, were attending.
Violent clashes broke out around the construction site as radical protesters threw projectiles and improvised explosives and police responded with tear gas and water cannons.
“While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water,” said the organisers gathering under the banner of “Bassines non merci” (“No to reservoirs, thank you”).
Eleven people were arrested after police seized explosives and weapons including petanque balls and knives.
The Sainte-Soline water reserve is the second of 16 such installations, part of a project developed by a group of 400 farmers organised in a water cooperative to significantly reduce mains water usage in summer. Opponents claim the “megabasins” are wrongly reserved for large export-oriented grain farms and deprive the community of access to the essential resource.
The construction site was the scene of very violent clashes last October when work was suspended.
Meanwhile demonstrations against the French president’s pension reform to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 were held across the country, including in Brest, Montpellier, Nice and Dijon.
The protest movement against the pension reform has turned into the biggest domestic crisis of President Macron’s second term, with daily clashes in the streets of Paris and other cities between police and protesters.
With public opinion firmly behind the protesters, unions have called another day of mass strike action next Tuesday.As police face accusations of using excessive force, the railway workers’ union said on Saturday that a Sud-Rail protester had been blinded by a stun grenade during a demonstration against pension reform in Paris on Saturday.
“Sébastien, a SUD-Rail trade unionist, railway worker in a hardware workshop for more than 25 years and father of three children, was blinded by the police”, the union said, demanding that the government and the Paris police be held accountable.
Another protester lost a finger when a stun grenade was fired at a demonstration in Rouen on Thursday, it said, condemning “with the utmost firmness this disproportionate and illegal use of violence”.
Sud-Rail told AFP that “legal complaints will be filed”, without giving further details.
Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, France’s largest, on Friday urged Mr Macron to put the pension reform “on hold for six months” to allow tensions to cool down. But the President said that while he was “at unions’ disposal” to discuss issues relating to labour, the pension reform was now in the hands of the Constitutional Council, France’s highest constitutional court, which must rule within a month whether it is viable.
Fearful of inflaming tensions, Paris’ police chief on Friday night launched an investigation after Le Monde and France Info on Friday released extracts of a recording in which motorised anti-riot police can be heard insulting and slapping youths they had just arrested after last Monday’s protests.
“Wipe that smile off your face,” one can be heard saying before slapping him. “Will you shut your mouth or do you want another one?,” he can be heard before slapping him again.
“I can tell you we broke some, elbows and mouths,” he can be heard adding.
France was expected to experience cancellations and delays in planes and train journeys, with 33 per cent of flights from Paris’ Orly airport cancelled on Sunday and 20 per cent to and from Roissy Charles de Gaulle. On Monday, the figure was put at 20 per cent in both.
However, in a glimmer of hope for Parisians, a rubbish collectors’ strike that has seen 10,000 tons of bin bags pile up in the streets of the capital may have reached a turning point after unionists ended their blockage of two of the capital’s three incinerators and the third was requisitioned.
The garbage is currently fouling up Paris, causing a major health hazard. Piles of bin bags have also been convenient bonfires for pension reform protesters.
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