The violent scenes in Sainte-Soline in western France came after days of violent protests nationwide over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform that prompted the cancellation of a visit by King Charles III of the UK.
A long procession set off late morning, comprising at least 6,000 people according to local authorities and around 30,000 according to the organisers.
More than 3,000 members of the security forces were deployed, with “at least 1,000” potentially violent activists, including some from Italy, present, officials said.
Around the construction site, defended by the police, violent clashes quickly broke out between the security forces and radical militants, AFP correspondents said.
Multiple projectiles and improvised explosives were thrown by protesters, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.
“While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water,” said the organisers gathering under the banner of “Bassines non merci” (“No thank you to reservoirs”).
According to the latest figures from the prosecutor’s office, seven demonstrators were injured, including three who had to be taken to hospital.
In addition, 28 gendarmes were injured, two of them badly enough that they had to be hospitalised.
Two journalists were also injured.
The alliance of activist groups behind the protests said 200 of their number had been injured, and one of them was fighting for their life, information not confirmed by the authorities.
In a tweet supporting the work of the emergency services there, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced “the intolerable wave of violence” at Sainte-Soline.
Soutien aux gendarmes et pompiers engagés sous l’autorité de la @Prefet79 pour assurer l’ordre républicain face à un déferlement de violence intolérable à Sainte-Soline.
Des actes inacceptables tout comme l’irresponsabilité des discours radicaux qui encouragent ces agissements.
— Élisabeth BORNE (@Elisabeth_Borne) March 25, 2023
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin also condemned the violence, blaming elements from the “ultra-left and the extreme left”.
Eleven people were detained after police seized cold weapons, including petanque balls and meat knives, as well as explosives.
While not directly related to the anti-pensions reform campaign, the clashes over the water reservoir construction have added to tensions in an increasingly challenging situation for the government.
The government is bracing for another difficult day on Tuesday when unions are due to hold another round of strikes and protests. That would have fallen on the second full day of Charles’s visit.
The recent scenes in France have sparked astonishment abroad. “Chaos reigns in France,” said The Times of London above a picture of rubbish piling up.
In France, Macron has faced accusations from the left that he removed a luxury watch in the middle of a television interview Wednesday, fearing images of the timepiece could further damage his reputation.
‘I will not give up’
Uproar over legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 was inflamed when Macron exercised a controversial executive power to push the plan through parliament without a vote last week.
The streets of the capital are strewn with rubbish because of a strike by waste collectors.
But there has also been controversy over the tactics used by the French security forces to disperse the protests.
On Friday, the Council of Europe warned that sporadic violence in protests “cannot justify excessive use of force”.
Macron has refused to offer concessions, saying in a televised interview Wednesday that the changes needed to “come into force by the end of the year”.
The Le Monde daily said Macron’s “inflexibility” was now worrying even “his own troops” among the ruling party.
In another sign of the febrile atmosphere, the leader of Macron’s faction in parliament, Aurore Berge, posted on Twitter a handwritten letter she received threatening her four-month-old baby with physical violence, prompting expressions of solidarity across the political spectrum.
Être insultée, être intimidée, c'était déjà intolérable.
Mais en venir à menacer mon bébé de 4 mois : "il est si petit son rejeton, il pourra pas s'enfuir. Feu, batte de base ball, barre de fer…".
Juste infâme. https://t.co/OFM8JwqC0u pic.twitter.com/MP7Gl1vnLA
— Aurore Bergé (@auroreberge) March 24, 2023
It remains unclear how the government will defuse the crisis, four years after the “Yellow Vest” demonstrations rocked the country.
Borne is under particular pressure.
But she told a conference on Saturday: “I will not give up on building compromises… I am here to find agreements and carry out the transformations necessary for our country and for the French,” she said.