Scenes on the streets of Toulouse

Protests swept many parts of France on Thursday evening after president Emmanuel Macron rammed through his attack on pensions without a vote in parliament. He used a special constitutional power—article 49.3—to pass a measure that raises the retirement age by two years.

It will become law unless the government is defeated in a no-confidence vote in the next few days. This desperate and authoritarian move adds to the political and social crisis. And it will be the biggest test so far for the movement that has launched mass strikes and protests for two months.

Macron’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, admitted that there was no majority for the change in the National Assembly—the equivalent of the House of Commons. “Today, we are faced with uncertainty that hinges on a few votes,” she said. “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions and this reform is necessary.”

It’s a hugely unpopular decision. A poll showed 82 percent of French people believe that the use of 49.3 on this issue is wrong. After Borne spoke, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Paris and other cities. The capital’s Place de la Concorde filled as the day went on.

As darkness fell, cops tried to disperse the crowd and protesters threw cobblestones torn from the pavement at the police. The cops used tear gas and water cannons as they pushed people into the surrounding streets.

Some protesters set fire to wood construction fencing and heaps of rubbish, which has gone uncollected in many parts of Paris over the past week because of a continuing strike by refuse workers.

For many, already enraged by Macron, the decision to bypass a parliamentary vote was the last straw. Protesting in Bordeaux, Frank Masal, a mathematics teacher at Gustave Eiffel high school, said the use of 49.3 was “a form of dictatorship”.

Activists also called protests in Lille, Toulouse, Le Mans, Brest, Rouen, Marseille, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Lyon, Lorient, Clermont-Ferrand and other cities. In some places, there were determined and impressive gatherings of trade unionists—many of them on indefinite strike.

In other places they were wilder and more mutinous. “We are rebirthing the Yellow Vests,” one demonstrator said in Strasbourg, referencing the militant movement that began in 2018.

Even before the vote, militancy was rising. On Thursday blockades at major junctions cut all access to the city of Rennes. In Bordeaux, workers and supporters broke into power stations and implemented electricity cuts that hit firms such as Dassault, Thalès, Sogerma and Mérignac airport.

Macron has refused to compromise despite eight huge days of action—including demonstrations that may have been the biggest in French history on Tuesday of last week. The union leaders, who have hitched the protests to the rhythm of parliamentary events, now have to face reality. They hoped, demanded and begged for negotiations. Macron has spat in their faces.

They have now called for “calm and determined actions” including “local union rallies this weekend and a new big day of strikes and demonstrations on Thursday 23 March.” That won’t be enough.

The right wing L’Opinion newspaper recently asked Macron’s relatives what they thought would be necessary to make him back off from the pension attacks. One said, “Paris on fire,” perhaps combined with the death of a demonstrator. Another said, “An indefinite general strike that produces an economic shock”.

While the union leaders dither, workers are still on strike in parts of transport, Paris’ refuse service, nuclear power stations, chemicals, refineries and some other areas.

It’s crucial that these strikes spread and take up other generalising issues such as pay. They need to combine with more of the Yellow Vest-type street protests and blockades. If they do, it’s possible to win a massive victory that can finish Macron and clear the way for more advances.

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