On Thursday, the ongoing protests against the French government’s plans to raise the pension age erupted in violence, with French protesters setting the Bordeaux town hall on fire. According to the BBC, more than a million French protesters took to the streets across France, with 119,000 in Paris alone, based on figures from the interior ministry. The police fired tear gas at protesters in the capital, and 80 people were arrested across the country.
The root cause of the demonstrations was legislation that would raise the retirement age by two years to 64. Unions have called for further protests next Tuesday, coinciding with King Charles III’s state visit to France. He is scheduled to be in the southwest city of Bordeaux on that day, where a fire engulfed the front door of the town hall on Thursday evening after a day of protests and clashes. It is still unclear who was responsible for the blaze, which firefighters quickly extinguished.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin attempted to ease concerns ahead of King Charles’s trip, assuring the public that security “poses no problem” and that the monarch will be “welcomed and welcomed well.” However, despite his assurances, the protests turned violent in some areas. In Paris, generally peaceful demonstrations were interrupted by occasional clashes between police and masked rioters who smashed shop windows, demolished street furniture, and attacked a McDonald’s restaurant, according to Reuters. One police officer lost consciousness and had to be dragged to safety.
Police forces used tear gas and were pelted with objects and fireworks, leading to the arrest of 33 people in the capital. The unrest disrupted train travel, oil refineries, and saw teachers and workers at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport walking out of work. Popular tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles, where a dinner is planned for King Charles and the French president next week, were closed on Thursday.
The violence was not confined to Paris, as there were other clashes in the western cities of Nantes, Rennes, and Lorient. In the northern city of Rouen, a young woman sustained a serious injury to her hand, losing her thumb after being hit by a so-called “flash-ball” grenade fired by police to disperse demonstrators. Witnesses saw her lying on the ground.
Some demonstrators expressed frustration at the government’s handling of the situation. “I oppose this reform, and I really oppose the fact that democracy no longer means anything,” one protester told Reuters. “We’re not being represented, and so we’re fed up.” “It is by protesting that we will be able to make ourselves heard because all the other ways… have not allowed us to withdraw this reform,” another said.
The day was deemed a success by unions and the political left, but where the situation goes from here is an open question. The government hopes that the protests will lose momentum and that the violence on the streets will turn people away. However, with unions calling for further protests next week, it remains to be seen whether the government can quell the unrest. For now, tensions continue to simmer as the French people express their opposition to the proposed pension reforms.