© Reuters. Demonstrators take cover behind umbrellas as they gather in Nantes to protest after French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne used the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly wi
By Noemie Olive and Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since the so-called Yellow Vest protests after his decision to push through a contested pension overhaul without a vote prompted violent unrest overnight.
Cars were torched in Paris and other French cities in the evening during otherwise peaceful demonstrations involving several thousand people. Trade unions urged workers to step up and briefly blocked the Paris ring road on Friday.
“Something fundamental happened, and that is that, immediately, spontaneous mobilisations took place throughout the country,” hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said. “It goes without saying that I encourage them, I think that’s where it’s happening.”
The pension overhaul raises France’s retirement age by two years to 64, which the government says is essential to ensure the system does not go bust.
Unions, and most voters, disagree.
The French are deeply attached to keeping the official retirement age at 62, which is among the lowest in OECD countries.
More than eight out of 10 people are unhappy with the government’s decision to skip a vote in parliament, and 65% want strikes and protests to continue, a Toluna Harris Interactive poll for RTL radio showed.
Going ahead without a vote “is a denial of democracy…a total denial of what has been happening in the streets for several weeks”, 52-year-old psychologist Nathalie Alquier said in Paris. “It’s just unbearable.”
A broad alliance of France’s main unions said they would continue their mobilisation to try and force a U-turn on the changes. Protests took place in cities including Toulon on Friday, with more were planned for the weekend. A new day of nationwide industrial action is scheduled for Thursday.
Teachers’ unions called for strikes next week, which could disrupt the emblematic Baccalaureate high-school exams.
While eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January, and many more local industrial actions, had so far been largely peaceful, the unrest overnight was reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests that erupted in late 2018 over high fuel prices and forced Macron into a partial U-turn on a carbon tax.
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