May 28, 2024

A new wave of unrest over a pension reform engulfed Paris and other French cities Thursday, with enraged protesters occupying the building of the US-based investment firm BlackRock and setting fire to a popular restaurant favored by President Emmanuel Macron.

Dozens of trade union members streamed into BlackRock’s Paris offices in the historical Centorial building, where they set off firecrackers and chanted slogans directed at the company’s private pension fund.

“The government wants to throw away pensions, it wants to force people to fund their own retirement with private pension funds, but what we know is that only the rich will be able to benefit from such a setup,” said protester Françoise Onic, a school teacher.

The temporary occupation of BlackRock came on the 11th day of nationwide strikes and demonstrations decrying Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 years in an apparent bid to keep France’s pension system from going bust.

Loudly chanting the French anti-pension reform protesters’ favorite slogan, “On est la” (“We are here”), the demonstrators retreated from the BlackRock building after about 30 minutes, leaving its lobby filled with smoke from the firecrackers.

Another financial institution that drew the wrath of the protesters was a branch of Credit Agricole, which saw its windows smashed before police dispersed the rabble-rousers with tear gas.

Elsewhere in the French capital, protesters took their rage out on the Left Bank brasserie La Rotonde, where Macron hosted a celebratory dinner during the 2017 presidential election.

Demonstrators pelted the eatery with stones, set its awning on fire and hurled bottles and paint at police who arrived to quell the unrest.

A riot police officer was briefly knocked unconscious by a cobblestone in the melee.

In the western city of Reims, police fired tear gas at protesters who clashed with them and set trash cans on fire while chanting, “Strike, blockade, Macron walk away!”

Police also responded with tear gas in Lyon, where a Nespresso coffee store was being looted.

The pension reform, which has become the centerpiece of Macron’s turbulent second term, has been met with widespread resistance, which intensified after the retirement age increase was pushed through the French parliament without a vote.  

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne met with union leaders Wednesday to try to break the impasse, but their talks broke up after just an hour without producing a solution.  

Protesters said the only way out of the crisis was for the unpopular pension reform to be scrapped — an option that Borne and Macron have dismissed.

“There is no other solution than withdrawing the reform,” the new leader of the hardline CGT union, Sophie Binet, said at the start of the Paris rally.

Both the government and the demonstrators are looking to the Constructional Council — France’s highest constitutional authority — to deliver its ruling on the pension bill on April 14.  

Constitutional experts say the panel is unlikely to strike the legislation down, which could take the wind out of the protests, which have been raging in France since January.

Latest data indicate that the movement could be losing steam.

About 400,000 people joined the protest in Paris Thursday, down from 450,000 the week before, the union CGT confirmed.

Across France, the previous nationwide day of protest on March 28 drew smaller crowds than the one before, with 740,000 taking part in strikes and rallies, according to the Interior Ministry.

Back on March 7, a record 1.28 million French citizens took part in protests by blocking traffic, disrupting commerce and walking off their jobs.

With Post wires