Hundreds of people were arrested across France over the weekend as protests against president Emmanuel Macron’s move to bypass parliament and raise the country’s retirement age intensified.
On Saturday, 70,000 protesters took to the streets in a show of anger against the reforms, according to the interior ministry, and there were 169 arrests, taking the total of arrests over three days of demonstrations to 540.
In Paris, water cannons were wheeled on to central Place de la Concorde and protesters banned from the square while some Metro stations nearby were shuttered.
Protesters near Place d’Italie, in the south-east of the city, clashed with riot police who fired tear gas as some demonstrators erected barricades of burning trash and abandoned rental bicycles.
“It’s war in the 13th arrondissement tonight, because otherwise we will all be working until we’re 88,” said Paul, a construction contractor in his mid-50s who declined to give his last name.
Macron on Thursday used a special constitutional power to ram through an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age by two years to 64 without a parliamentary vote. As a result of the move, his government faces a no-confidence vote in the French assembly on Monday.
If the motion fails, which is seen as likely because of divisions among the opposition parties, then the pensions reform will become law. If it goes through, Macron’s government will fall and the law will not be passed.
The offices of the leader of the centre-right Republicains party in Nice were vandalised in the early hours on Sunday, in an apparent attempt to put pressure on his rightwing party to vote against the government.
If the government survives the confidence vote, opponents of the pensions plan have vowed to fight on, with unions in key sectors such as petrol refineries and transport calling for more strikes.
Strikes at the country’s petrol refineries were stepped up at the weekend, after unions announced stoppages at one of the country’s biggest Total refineries in Normandy. Before Friday’s announcement, unions had been blocking petrol deliveries from leaving the refineries, while allowing them operate.
Officials fear the unrest could spiral, like the gilets jaunes movement in 2018 against an unpopular fuel tax proposal by the previous Macron government.
But Macron’s allies have said they will not back down, despite the growing dissent.
“I understand the worries and anxieties of our fellow citizens, but it is not through denying economic realities that we will cure them,” finance minister Bruno Le Maire told Le Parisien newspaper. He defended the legitimacy of using the constitutional power, which he called “a democratic tool”, and promised that the government would not abandon the reform.
“To finance our [pensions] system, which is among the most generous in the world, we must progressively ask those who can to work more,” he said.
Macron’s approval ratings have fallen 4 points in the past month to 28 per cent, according an IFOP-Journal du Dimanche poll, their lowest level since the gilets jaunes crisis.
“I hope the no-confidence motions work because this is intolerable. We decry the deterioration of democratic rights in other countries, but now we are here. We have to defend our republic,” said Modicom Gaetane, 48, a hospital worker who took part in the marches near Place d’Italie.
“I wanted to show there are people from all walks of life here, not just [radical] protesters. There are also mothers here,” she added.