French police counter protest violence as rubbish strike paused

France has been plunged into another day of mass protests, ITV News' Lucy Watson reports

Bolstered French police forces clashed with demonstrators in numerous cities Tuesday as hundred of thousands of marchers protested President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular retirement reform.

Protesters jumped onto train tracks at one of Paris' busiest railway stations, holding up passengers amid nationwide demonstrations.

Police security across France was ramped up on Tuesday amid government warnings that radical demonstrators intended “to destroy, to injure and to kill".

Concerns violence could mar the demonstrations prompted what Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin described as an unprecedented deployment of 13,000 officers, nearly half of them concentrated in the French capital.

After months of upheaval, an exit from the firestorm of protest triggered by President Emmanuel Macron's changes to France’s retirement system looked as far away as ever.

Despite fresh union pleas that the government pause its hotly contested push to raise France’s legal retirement age from 62 to 64, Mr Macron seemingly remained wedded to it.

The French leader previously used a special constitutional power to ram the reform past legislators without allowing them a vote. His move this month further galvanised the protest movement.

Violence has since flared and thousands of tons of stinking garbage have piled up on Paris’ streets as sanitation workers strike.

“Everybody is getting madder,” said Clément Saild, a train passenger at Paris’ Gare de Lyon railway station, where tracks were temporarily invaded and blocked by protesting workers.

Youths scuffle with police forces amid tear gas during a demonstration. Credit: AP

He said said he supports the strikes despite their impact on transportation and other services.

“I am 26, and I wonder if I will ever retire,” he said.

Another passenger, Helene Cogan, 70, said: “French people are stubborn and things are getting out of hand.”

The wave of protests marked the 10th time since January that unions have called on workers to walk out and for demonstrators to flood the nation’s streets against Mr Macron’s retirement changes, which are a key priority of his second term as president.

But on Tuesday, sanitation workers in Paris announced they are suspending their more than three-week-long strike that has left piles of stinking garbage uncollected on the capital’s streets.

Striking railway workers demonstrate near burning palettes at the Gare de Lyon train station. Credit: AP

Mr Macron's government argues that France’s pension system will dive into deficit without reform, because of the lower birth rates and longer life expectancy in many richer nations. But his opponents say additional funding for pensions could come from other sources, without having to make workers retire later.

Demonstrations got underway peacefully on Tuesday morning, with large crowds in multiple cities.

But police braced for violence later in the day. The interior minister said more than 1,000 “radical” troublemakers, some from overseas, could latch on to marches in Paris and elsewhere.

“They come to destroy, to injure and to kill police officers and [paramilitary police]. Their goals have nothing to do with the pension reform. Their goals are to destabilise our republican institutions and bring blood and fire down on France,” the minister said Monday in detailing the policing.

Some protesters, human rights campaigners and Mr Macron’s political opponents allege police officers have used excessive force against demonstrators. A police oversight body is investigating multiple claims of wrongdoing by officers.

The striking railway workers outside Gare de Lyon marched behind a banner that alleged: “The police mutilates. We don’t forgive!”

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Mr Macron’s opponents are urging him to cool tempers by backing down. Union leader Laurent Berger appealed Tuesday for a pause in implementing the retirement reform and for mediation. “If we want to avoid tensions - and I want to avoid them - what the trade unions are proposing is a gesture to calm things down,” he said. “It must be seized.”

But government spokesman Olivier Veran said mediation wasn’t needed for unions and the government to talk to each other.

The latest round of protests prompted Mr Macron to indefinitely postpone a planned state visit this week by King Charles III.

Mr Veran insisted, however, that France remains a welcoming place for all non-royal visitors.

“Life goes on,” he said.