Fresh clashes rock France as protests shift to water dispute

French police again clashed with protesters Saturday as campaigners in the southwest sought to stop the construction of giant water storage facilities, the latest flashpoint as social tensions erupt nationwide.

Fresh clashes rock France as protests shift to water dispute
A French Republican Security Corps (CRS - Compagnies Republicaines de Securite) police officer. Photo: LOU BENOIST/AFP

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”).

‘Completely inexcusable’ 

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.

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.

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.


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Flights cancelled in France’s latest pension strike

The next day of strikes and demos by opponents of pension reform will see flight cancellations at France's main airports, the French civil aviation authority has announced.

Flights cancelled in France's latest pension strike

After a break of several weeks, the next strike day in France’s long-running battle over pension reform is scheduled for Tuesday, June 6th.

Disruption from one-day mass strikes has become less severe over time, but on Thursday the French civil aviation authority announced that flights in and out of Paris Orly, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes airports will be affected by walk-outs from air traffic controllers. Paris Charles de Gaulle airport will not be affected.

The Direction générale de l’aviation civile (DGAC) has requested that airlines cancel 33 percent of flights in and out of Paris Orly airport, and 20 percent of flights in and out of Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Nantes

Flights that pass over French airspace could also be affected.

The DGAC advised travellers to postpone their journey if possible. 

The disruption will last from the evening of Monday, June 5th to the morning of Wednesday, June 7th, with the possibility of knock-on effects later in the week.

The DGAC tells airlines to cancel a certain percentage of flights, and then it is up to airlines to decide which flights to cancel. The airlines generally try to protect long-haul flights to minimise disruption.

Anyone with a flight booked is advised to contact their airline. 

June 6th marks the latest in a series of one-day strikes that have gripped the country since January over Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to the French pension system, including raising the pension age from 62 to 64. The reform has now passed into law, but political opponents have a final opportunity to try and block it in parliament on June 8th.

It’s likely that June 6th will also see some level of disruption on the national rail network and city public transport – full details will be published on Monday.

There will also be marches and demos in towns and cities around France.

You can keep up with the latest on service disruption in our strike section HERE