The ancient wooden doors are adorned with an ornate metal knocker and a small grilled window, for guards to peek through. Once an imposing part of the elegant facade of Bordeaux’s City Hall, they look more like towering pieces of charcoal since being set on fire last week, after a protest against the French government’s retirement law.
“It makes me angry. This is our heritage,” said Catherine Debève, a retired accountant standing among the crowd drawn by outrage and curiosity to the stone plaza in the city’s center to examine the damage. “The government has to withdraw its law. Anger is growing.”
Traditionally, Bordeaux, in the southwest of France, is known for its surrounding vineyards, conservative politics and colonial wealth. It is a measure of the anger sparked by the government’s decision to force through a law raising the retirement age to 64, from 62, that Bordeaux, too, has become a violent flashpoint of the rancor.
University students have occupied their buildings, putting an end to classes. A record number of protesters have charged through the stony streets declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Protests have ended in fires and clouds of tear gas, with a handful of agitators later setting fire to the antique doors leading into the City Hall’s broad courtyard.
“Bordeaux is not usually a protesting town,” Mathieu Obry, a bus driver and union organizer, said during yet another march through the city’s downtown on Tuesday — the 10th — above the exploding firecrackers and echoing bull horns.
That so many had turned out on the streets, Mr. Obry said, revealed “the government has gone too far.”
As in much of the rest of the country, Tuesday’s protest was not as big or as violent as those last week. But it still drew large enough numbers — 80,000 by the unions’ count, 11,000 according to the prefecture — to indicate that outrage against the government remains strong.
For more than two months, the French have protested against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension change. But after his government used a constitutional measure to push the law through Parliament without a full vote, the protests intensified.
In many places, like Bordeaux, students have now joined the demonstrations in force — historically, an ominous sign for those in power.
“It’s not just Paris that has mobilized. It’s here also, in ‘la province,’” or the provinces, said Mélissa Dedieu, 21, after chanting along to another rendition of a protest song that went: “Macron went to war with us, and his police too, but we remain determined….”
Shortly after Mr. Macron’s government survived a no-confidence vote last week, students pushed into the doors of the University of Bordeaux’s 140-year-old human sciences building and declared they were occupying it.
“We are entering the era of dictatorship,” said Maia Laffont, 23, a third-year psychology student, standing beneath stone busts of notable French scientists rising from the facade of the Beaux-Arts building, now scrawled with anti-Macron graffiti.
Students have taken over all floors and many administrative offices, as well as its auditorium and lovely courtyard, holding banner-making sessions, marshmallow roasts and general meetings. Though their battle is officially with the president and his government, many said they are also angry at the university administration for not taking an official position against the retirement law.
“They didn’t defend our long-term interests,” said Ms. Laffont, nervously watching a trio of passing police.
The students at Bordeaux Montaigne University, on the outskirts of the city, have gone even further — occupying the entire campus. Normally thronging with 18,000 students, the liberal arts university campus feels like a scene from an apocalyptic science fiction film. The entrances to its buildings are barricaded with tables and chairs, and many of its white walls scrawled with angry messages, including a harrowing, “Long Live the Fire.”
“We blocked the school to enable the students to mobilize. Even if you don’t have classes, with 35 hours a week of studying and research, there is no time to protest,” explained Julia Chinarro, 27, stepping outside the student building that has been transformed into a common bedroom.
Their occupation is now two weeks old, but their numbers swelled after the government pushed through the law. The grievances have broadened from anger over the single law to the government’s method of ruling — and the Constitution that permits it — writ large.
“Our voices are not listened to. It’s totally undemocratic,” explained Axel Méchain, 22, a theater student and recent recruit to the occupation. “If we are going to do anything about that, it’s now.”
In France, student movements have historically had the power to frighten governments. University students sparked the monthslong 1968 revolution that upended the country’s social norms and pushed the president to dissolve his government and call for new elections. Facing large student protests in 2006, the government repealed its recently passed youth-jobs contract.
“Students are much more difficult to send back to work,” explained Lionel Larré, the president of Bordeaux Montaigne University. “They have nothing much to lose. And they are numerous.”
Mr. Larré has met regularly with the students occupying his campus, and is generally supportive of their cause, though not their method. From his vantage point, the movement is growing.
“My fear is the movement becomes more and more radical, and people believe they have nothing to lose,” he said.
From inside City Hall, Mayor Pierre Hurmic also worries. Having passed through a social and political stage, the crisis has revealed something far more troubling — “a democratic fracture between the government and the governed,” he said.
The burning of the City Hall doors would seem to support that theory, symbolically. Except Mr. Hurmic, the city’s first left-wing mayor since 1947, has been a vocal opponent of the pension bill and Mr. Macron, whom he calls “the prince.”
“I call this the common home of all people from Bordeaux. I don’t see the link between the common house and opposition to the pension bill,” he said.
He believes the fire was the work of opportunists, not allied with the protest, who used the anger in the street as a pretext to create damage.
The police investigation into the fire is ongoing. To date, four men and one youth have been arrested. Three were convicted of wearing face coverings, and carrying weapons that included a bicycle chain and sharpened PVC pipe — not of setting the door alight. The trials of the other two are pending.
It isn’t clear that a connection to the protests, if one is revealed, would be damaging to the movement. In Paris, some protesters have abandoned the regular union marches, considering them ineffective, and have taken up “wild” night marches, which often result in violent confrontations with police.
In Bordeaux, many students said they didn’t support violence, but they understood the anger that could cause it. “I’m not sure violence is a good solution, but I don’t see another solution either,” said Raphaëlle Desplat, 19 a student at Sciences Po Bordeaux, which has faced student blockades as well.
Some even claimed the charred City Hall doors as a “symbol of resistance.”
“They give the message — he won’t implement the new law and we will do everything to make sure he doesn’t,” said Ms. Laffont.
But for many, repealing the pension law — or putting a temporary hold on it, as one national union leader recently suggested — is no longer enough. Their fight is now with a Constitution that offers so much power to the presidency, and with Mr. Macron’s rule in particular.
“Our victory will be the end of this government,” says Hélène Cerclé, 22, among a throng of singing students being led by a marching band in Tuesday’s protest. A masters student, Ms. Cerclé doesn’t worry that the protests will degenerate. “I’m mostly scared all this won’t change anything,” she said.
As the march passed behind the city’s towering St. André Cathedral, which shares a plaza with City Hall, a battalion of police officers in riot gear came into view.
They offered a reminder: Ms. Cerclé would rather talk about injured protesters than damaged buildings. The site of the charred doors, with grilled peep hole and ancient heavy knocker, stirred no emotion in her.
“They’re just doors,” she said, and continued marching.
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