A Long Weekend in Paris

Brian Ng

Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, Paris, on Sunday night

The French prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, declared to the National Assembly last Thursday that the government would bypass voting in the lower house of parliament, instead using article 49.3 of the constitution to push its pension reform bill through. Since President Macron announced the bill in January, protests across France have brought millions of people into the streets. The bill includes a range of measures, but the most controversial is a raise of the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The government argues that France has the lowest retirement age in the European Union and the state finances can’t keep up. The opposition replies that the finances aren’t as dire as all that, and would be a lot healthier had Macron not slashed taxes for big business and the very rich.

When Borne stood up in the National Assembly before voting was meant to begin, left-wing MPs started singing the ‘Marseillaise’ – members of La France Insoumise also held up pieces of paper saying ‘no to 49.3’. In the days running up to the vote, during a week of continuous protests, Macron had insisted to the media that the numbers to pass the bill would be mustered. But in the end the government decided it couldn’t rely on the necessary votes from Les Républicains, and chose to invoke article 49.3.

Left-wing MPs walked out. Thousands of protesters made their way towards the National Assembly but were stopped by police and corralled into place de la Concorde, across the river from the Palais Bourbon. MPs walked over the pont de la Concorde and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, tried to lead the protesters back over the bridge but was prevented by the police; he left soon afterwards. More demonstrators arrived.

The police seemed unprepared for the spontaneous protest. At sunset, protesters moved barriers from elsewhere in the square and built a barricade around the assembled police, who had brought a van equipped with water cannon. Bonfires were lit between the barricade and the obelisk, on the site where the guillotine once stood. ‘We decapitated Louis XVI,’ the crowd chanted, ‘we can do it again, Macron!’ After night had fallen, the police pushed the protesters deeper into the square. The crowd spilled out into the only unblocked street, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which was full of rubbish because of the sanitation workers’ strike: plenty of fuel for the protesters.

Scenes from other cities of police clearing protesters – who fought back with fireworks and Molotov cocktails – circulated on social media. Plans to reconvene the next day were quickly disseminated.

On Friday evening I approached place de la Concorde from the Champs-Élysées, part of which had been cordoned off and emptied of cars. At the entrance to the square the police vans were nine deep; the other sides of the square were sealed off by tessellated vans. Unlike the previous day, the weather was dismal: rain came and went, the cold was more acute. Yet as many people, if not more, had shown up. There was only one bonfire this time, lit next to a barricade in front of the riot police who were blocking the bridge. The police intermittently banged their shields, and the protesters booed and hurled insults in response. I left around 8 p.m. Around a hundred metres away, people quietly had dinner at the bistros on rue de Rivoli.

Ten minutes later, the police started firing tear gas and water cannon into the crowd as they had the night before. They had hemmed in the protesters. Some fought back but there was nowhere to retreat except into the Concorde Metro station. I watched Brut’s livestream on TikTok as the police slowly forced protesters into the station and harassed the journalists who filmed their actions. It was over by midnight.

On Saturday morning, another invitation to protest went out: ‘6 p.m., place de la Concorde, every night until the government falls’. By 3 p.m. the Préfecture de Police had announced that all assemblies in or near place de la Concorde were now banned. The protesters gathered instead in place d’Italie. Large numbers of police from the Brigades de Répression des Actions Violentes Motorisées (BRAV-M), motorcycle units formed in 2019 to respond to the gilets jaunes, were sent in. They charged the crowd on foot, slowed down only when glass bottles – gathered by upending giant recycling bins – were flung at them. They hurtled down streets, jumping over obstacles, hurling tear-gas cannisters and lashing out with their truncheons. Protesters had taken temporary metal railings and lined them up down the streets like hurdles. The BRAV-M furiously picked the fences up and chucked them aside. The night ended with more than a hundred arrests.

On Sunday, protesters gathered in Châtelet. There was a lower turnout – hundreds rather than thousands – and they were peaceful. But the police were taking no chances and swooped in to divide the demonstrators and kettle them in the side streets. The police – illegally – didn’t allow the protestors out, so some bars and restaurants provided free food while they stood and waited for hours to be escorted to the Metro stations.

On Monday, all the Metro stations near the presidential palace were closed ahead of two no-confidence motions in the National Assembly, legislators’ only recourse against the invoking of article 49.3. The debate began at 4 p.m. Three hours later the results were in: 278 votes of no confidence, nine too few to dissolve the government: as with the pension reform bill, though this time in Macron’s favour, there weren’t enough centre-right Républicains willing to vote for it. The second motion, put forward by the far-right Rassemblement National, failed soon afterwards, with only 94 votes in support.

Angry crowds gathered in squares across France on a fifth consecutive day of spontaneous, unsanctioned protest. The hundreds of protesters in place Vauban were joined by MPs, wearing their tricolour sashes. ‘This is not democracy,’ a France Insoumise MP, Clémentine Autain, told reporters.

Across the river, another march set out from Gare Saint-Lazare, the protesters mainly dressed in black. The police tear-gassed them as they made their way south to the Louvre and up to Châtelet, setting fire to rubbish in the streets as they marched. As the evening wore on, the demonstrators split up into smaller groups across Paris, leaving blockades and fires in the side streets.

By midnight, many of those still out had converged in the Bastille area. Near the western entrance to place de la Bastille I counted 14 vans and a dozen BRAV-M motorcycles. Around a hundred protesters stood in front of the Colonne de Juillet, which commemorates the 1830 revolution. There were more vans on boulevard Richard Lenoir, on the north side, with more police lined up. Two hundred demonstrators were marching up past the opera house. I passed through them onto rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where fires had been lit earlier and put out by firefighters. There, I counted another 17 police vans, including one with water cannon. Police hurried down the street, some still putting on their riot gear.

I reached home around 12.30 a.m. and logged onto the Brut livestream, which showed police charging at protesters, and forcing them into the Metro. (I must have got out with minutes to spare.) When the trains stopped running, arrests began.

I’ve heard it suggested that it would bode well for Macron’s faction if protesters got violent, as it would turn the public opinion against the unions. That has not happened. Instead, Macron’s approval rating has dropped by eight points since December, according to a Le Figaro poll. The next officially organised demonstration is tomorrow, arranged by the unions before the pension reform bill was due to be voted on. The fight won’t stop before then, and is likely to continue past it: the French can rest when they’re 62.


  • 23 March 2023 at 10:19am
    Harry Stopes says:
    I think it's worth adding to this interesting account by noting that under the present rules 62 is the absolute earliest a person can retire in France and still get the full pension. To do so, one would have to have worked for 42 years and had no gaps in employment. There's an informative Twitter thread here:

    Extract: "Missing quarters [ of employment ] will result in a steep discount applied to the owed amount—in practice cases, a 0.625-point discount per missing quarter. You'll get 40% instead of 50% of your gross average salary if you were employed 38 years instead of 42.
    Ways to avoid the discount are buying missing quarters, working a bit longer, or waiting until age 67 for a full pension—yes, that same age when supposedly everyone retires everywhere but in France. So you see, France is not that exceptional after all."