Stuck in a highly charged standoff, France was bracing on Tuesday for another round of disruptive strikes, huge street demonstrations and potentially violent protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension overhaul.
A surge of violence on the fringes of last week’s largely peaceful marches was an ominous sign, ratcheting up the already high tension between Mr. Macron and opponents of the move to raise the legal age of retirement — labor unions, almost all opposition parties and over two-thirds of the French public.
The disturbances on Tuesday were wearingly familiar to many in France after three months of conflict: University entrances were blocked, trains were canceled and gas stations in the west and the southeast faced shortages amid continuing blockages at refineries and fuel depots.
Garbage was piled up in many neighborhoods of Paris. A planned visit by King Charles III of Britain was postponed last week.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were also expected to take to streets around the country. If their numbers surpass one million, it will be the fifth time since January.
The fury has coalesced around Mr. Macron and his decision to a constitutional tool known as Article 49.3 that allowed him to push the pension bill through the lower house of Parliament without a vote.
He is now in the seemingly untenable position of trying to smooth tensions over even as he forges ahead with the most contentious policy of his second term: a gradual raise of the age when most workers can start collecting a government pension to 64, from 62.
“The anger and resentment is at a level that I have rarely experienced,” François Hollande, a Socialist who was Mr. Macron’s predecessor, told the BFMTV news channel on Sunday. Mr. Macron’s timing, he added, could not have been worse.
“When you launch a pension overhaul in a context of strong inflation, heavily reduced purchasing power and worries over a war in Ukraine,” Mr. Hollande said, “that fuels incomprehension.”
The uptick in violence has been accompanied by accusations of police misbehavior and brutality. The government has countered that the security forces are facing increasingly brazen attacks on police officers or on public buildings carried out by protesters whom officials called radicalized.
Tensions were further inflamed over the weekend after extremely violent clashes erupted in western France between thousands of riot police officers and environmental activists who were protesting the construction of water reservoirs that have emerged as a point of contention. Two protesters sustained critical injuries in circumstances that remain unclear and are still in a coma, according to the authorities.
“We are in a moment of total tension, with a very deep resentment, and anger that is rising,” Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, France’s largest labor union, told France 2 television on Monday.
“If democracy is just electing people, and then they do what they want for five years, it doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the length of a presidential term in France.
The government and its opponents have appealed for calm, but they agree on little else. For labor unions, the increase in the legal age of retirement has always been a nonstarter. For Mr. Macron, it is fundamentally necessary to balance the finances of the French pension system, which he says are currently unsustainable, even at the cost of strikes and jolts of chaotic unrest in the streets.
One gesture came from Élisabeth Borne, Mr. Macron’s prime minister, who told Agence France-Presse on Sunday that she wanted to be more circumspect in using Article 49.3. “We need to calm things down,” said Ms. Borne, who is conducting a flurry of meetings over the next few weeks to chart the government’s next steps.
But the promise rang false for many opponents, who blame Mr. Macron’s inflexibility for the unrest, one of the most significant threats to the French president since the Yellow Vest movement that rocked his first term.
“The violence is his fault,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader and a founder of the France Unbowed party, said on Monday. “He is incapable of stopping it, incapable of containing it — he manages to do only one thing: amplify it.”
The standoff has grown increasingly bitter. A top lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party said she had received death threats against her and her family. The president of France’s lower house of Parliament, also an ally of Mr. Macron, said she had received a similar letter full of antisemitic and sexist threats.
Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said on Monday that 13,000 officers would be deployed across the country to provide security at the protests, including over 5,000 in Paris.
Mr. Darmanin said that since Mr. Macron had decided to push the bill through the lower house, dozens of buildings like town halls and police stations, as well as over a hundred constituency offices of lawmakers, had been targeted by vandalism and arson. Over 800 officers have been injured during protests.
The interior minister accused what he called radical leftist groups of hijacking the demonstrations to challenge the French state.
Unions, lawyers, human rights groups and the Council of Europe have said the authorities are also to blame for the increasing violence, accusing the police of employing harsh tactics like large-scale corralling and unwarranted preventive arrests on peaceful demonstrators.
The police’s internal watchdog and disciplinary body has opened 17 investigations of misconduct related to the pension protests so far.
The pension law will stand unless the Constitutional Council, a body that reviews legislation to ensures it conforms to France’s Constitution, strikes it down. A ruling is expected in the next few weeks.
“Macron’s belief — or hope — remains that he can gradually ‘change the subject’ to other more popular reforms,” Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst at the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in an analysis on Monday.
But, he added: “As things stand, the confrontation looks likely to continue for several weeks.”
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