The class struggle in France

Bordeaux city hall set on fire amid nationwide protests against French pension changes

By Kim Willsher in Paris
23 Mar 2023

Emmanuel Macron felt the full force of French anger on Thursday as protesters gathered across the country to demonstrate their opposition to the pension age being raised from 62 to 64.

Unions claimed 3.5 million people turned out across the country, while the authorities suggested the figure was much lower, at just under 1.1 million.

In Paris, union leaders claimed that a record 800,000 people took part in a mostly peaceful march through the city – the police gave the figure as 119,000 – to demand that the government drop the fiercely contested change.

However, the national day of action was marred by outbreaks of violence and vandalism. In the south-western city of Bordeaux, the front door of the city hall was set on fire, while in Paris police and groups of protesters clashed late into the night.

In the capital, the official demonstration, made up of a large cross-section of French society – young, old, professional, unemployed – set off from Place de la Bastille in the early afternoon and made its way to Place de l’Opéra along the Grands Boulevards, the main east-west road through the northern part of central Paris.

French union members, carrying flags and banners, were flanked by their own stewards to ensure their security. The crowd was dense and angry with the government and president, but the mood was also festive and motivated by a show of solidarity.

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The atmosphere was soured by a group of young people called casseurs (smashers), dressed in black and wearing masks, who had positioned themselves at the head of the march and destroyed bus shelters, advertising hoardings, shop windows, the front of a McDonald’s, and newspaper kiosks, leaving a trail of glass and piles of burning bins in their wake.

They also pulled up cast-iron grilles around trees and broke up paving stones, which they then threw at police.

The worst clashes took place in Place de l’Opéra and later at Place de la Bastille where police attempted to disperse them with teargas.

Elsewhere, a woman reportedly had part of her hand blown off by a teargas grenade in the city of Rouen, where between 14,800 and 23,000 protesters gathered, according to figures from police and unions. There were large protests in Marseille, Lyon, Besançon, Rennes and Arles, as well as other French towns and cities.

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