France’s weekend of discontent: Yellow vest and pension protesters gather

Among the protests in Paris on Saturday, union supporters took to the streets to demonstrate against unemployment,
Among the protests in Paris on Saturday, union supporters took to the streets to demonstrate against unemployment, PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS — One protest movement started a year ago in France and drew hundreds of thousands at its peak to roundabouts across the country in angry yellow vest demonstrations against planned increases in gas taxes.

Another — a nationwide strike expressing fury over President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the pension system — began last week. On Saturday, it continued to paralyze parts of the country.

Even as the strength of the long-running yellow vest protests has dissipated over the year, the movement’s simmering anger at the president ran smack dab this weekend into the latest turmoil over his pension plans.


Both events have harnessed broader discontent with the policies of Macron, who is viewed both by both yellow vest protesters and labor activists as arrogant and disconnected from their daily struggles. At their most violent, the yellow vest protests saw people break shop windows, police fire tear gas and rubber bullets, and Macron consider a state of emergency.

More yellow vest rallies were expected in Paris and other cities Saturday, and so were traditional union demonstrations against unemployment. But the size and impact of both are uncertain. And though neither is directly tied to the pension demonstrations, both could get a boost from the latest social unrest.

On Saturday, about 1,000 yellow vest protesters marched from the Ministry of Economy and Finance to southern Paris. The demonstration was mostly calm, despite brief scuffles with police, who fired tear gas. A separate union protest gathered in the Montparnasse neighborhood, while labor activists also demonstrated in cities such as Marseille and Caen.

There is little sign of any coordination among any of those causes: The yellow vest protesters — named for the fluorescent emergency gear that all French drivers must have in their vehicles — are largely leaderless, and the union rallies are held annually on the first Saturday of December.


But the pension fight has given new energy to both movements, and some yellow vest protesters took part in last week’s labor marches, a stark contrast to last year, when they rejected unions as inefficient and archaic.

And the government was gearing up for more protests in the coming week. Labor unions have called for huge street demonstrations Tuesday, the day before Prime Minister Édouard Philippe is expected to unveil fresh details of the pension plans.

Macron has promised to standardize 42 public and private pension schemes into one state-managed, point-based plan. But for many protesters, nothing less than the future of their vaunted social safety net is at stake. Many fear losing money and having to work longer before retiring.

The protests have already unleashed days of public transportation chaos that halted trains and led to canceled flights.

On Saturday, the impact of the continuing strike was limited, since weekday workers did not have to commute. But train traffic was still heavily disrupted across France, and some businesses have started expressing worries that the strike could affect Christmas shopping.

Only 1 in 6 scheduled high-speed trains was running, and in Paris, 9 out of 16 Metro lines remained shut down. Unrelated protests by truck drivers over fuel tax hikes worsened the disruptions, as trucks were used to block highways and tollbooths, slowing traffic to a crawl in places such as Normandy and the Toulouse region.

France’s national railway company, SNCF, warned residents of Paris and its suburbs that crowds at some regional express stations Monday could be “dangerous” because there were expected to be many fewer commuter trains.


“SNCF is asking those who can to cancel their trips,” the company said on Twitter.

Labor unions, expecting a protracted struggle against the government, have activated strike funds to mitigate the loss of income for striking workers. Some supporters of the protesters have also started fund-raising campaigns.

One was even started on Twitch, the video game streaming platform, where a collective of streamers and artists have vowed to keep broadcasting games, artwork, and political discussions as long as the strike continued.

The stream has raised more nearly $36,500 so far.

Philippe lamented in a televised address Friday the spread of “fake news” about the pension overhaul. He specifically blamed a number of “simulators” that some unions have put online to show people how they would be affected by the changes, under which workers would accumulate points over the course of their careers and cash them in when they retire. Noting that the details of the plan had yet to be unveiled, he said that such simulators “correspond to nothing.”