More than a million people took to the streets across France on Thursday with protests turning violent in some areas as demonstrators voiced their fury at proposed pension reforms.
Clashes between groups of protesters and police broke out later workers staged a national strike throughout Thursday, with flare-ups in Paris and regional capitals.
French police said around 1,000 people acted “violently,” setting fires, launching smoke bombs and damaging property. In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, protesters set fire to the entrance of the city hall during ongoing clashes with police, according to News84Media affiliate BFMTV.
Police fired tear gas at crowds in northwestern Lorient, while video from Rennes shows authorities using water cannons to disperse protesters.
At least 80 people were arrested and 123 police officers injured in France on Thursday during the nationwide protests, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
Thursday was the ninth day of strikes in the country and the first of coordinated action since French President Emmanuel Macron’s government pushed a bill to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 through parliament without a vote last week.
The mostly peaceful day of strike action – which saw 119,000 people march in Paris, according to the Interior Ministry – disrupted transport networks, oil refineries and schools.
It also affected air traffic, with 30% of flights impacted at Paris Orly airport.
Unionized workers blockaded a major oil refinery in Normandy and another one in Fos-sur-Mer in the south of the country, according to a government spokesperson. And earlier in the day, about 70 protesters blocked terminal one at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, an airport spokesperson told News84Media.
Ahead of the strike, French authorities had mobilized 12,000 police officers throughout the country, including 5,000 in Paris.
France’s eight major trade unions announced a further nationwide protest for March 28, and called for local disruptive action over the weekend.
“The responsibility for this explosive situation lies not with the unions but with the government,” they said in a televised statement.
Britain’s King Charles had been due to visit Bordeaux on March 28 during his first foreign state visit as monarch, but on Friday the trip was postponed.
“In view of yesterday’s announcement of a new national day of action against pension reform on Tuesday, March 28 in France, the visit of King Charles III, originally scheduled for March 26-29 in our country, will be postponed,” the Élysée Palace announced in a statement Friday.
“This decision was taken by the French and British governments, after a telephone exchange between the President of the Republic and the King this morning, in order to be able to welcome His Majesty King Charles III in conditions that correspond to our friendly relationship. This state visit will be rescheduled as soon as possible,” the statement continued.
The French government’s plan to raise the retirement age for most workers by two years was opposed by huge numbers of people.
Despite protests, Macron’s government has not backed down. It rammed the legislation through the French National Assembly last week using a constitutional clause that allows the government to bypass a vote.
The country’s generous pension system and early retirement have been a point of pride since they were enacted after World War II. Under the new law, the retirement age for most workers will be 64, still one of the lowest in the industrialized world.
When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms were necessary to prevent a projected 13.5 billion euro ($14.7 billion) hole opening up in the pension system in 2030.
Thursday’s demonstrations come after Macron defended the reforms in an interview on French television on Wednesday, confirming they would be implemented by the end of the year.
“It’s in the greater interest of the country. Between opinion polls and the national interest, I chose the national interest,” Macron said.
But government critics and Macron’s detractors were incensed.
“[Macron] has added fuel to the fire,” Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT, France’s largest union, told French broadcaster LCI on Thursday.