Protests against the government’s use of a special constitutional provision known as Article 49.3 to sweep aside parliamentary opposition to the reform have been angrier than any in the past two months.
Unions coordinating their protests called for a ninth day of strikes next Thursday, but many feared they would lose control of the protesters as more radical protesters set the tone.
“Yes, we are concerned,” Cyril Chabanier, head of the moderate CFTC trade union, told AFP.
Commentators have begun to wonder whether the hardening of fronts could herald the return of the Yellow Vests, a grassroots movement that began in 2018 as a protest against rising fuel prices and snowballed into the largest anti-Macron social act during his first term.
>> A year of rebellion: how the yellow vests left an ‘indelible mark’ on French politics
“It’s a social law of physics,” said Jean-Marie Pernot, a political scientist who specializes in labor unions.
“If you don’t respect any of the channels for expressing dissent, it will find a way to express itself directly,” he told AFP.
Early Yellow Vest activity was marked by strikes, weekly demonstrations, blocking roads and fuel depots, and the worst clashes with riot police in decades.
It was only with the movement restrictions caused by the Covid crisis that the store’s operations were stopped.
“Harder measures ahead”
“There could be tougher action ahead, more serious and more far-reaching,” warned Fabrice Coudour, the leading energy representative of the hard-left CGT Union.
“It may well elude our collective decision-making,” he said.
The Yellow Vests prided themselves on not having designated leaders. They resisted attempts by left-wing politicians and unions to harness the energy of the movement for their own purposes.
One of their most famous spokesmen was Jerome Rodrigues, who lost an eye to a police rubber bullet during clashes at one of the demos.
Within hours of changing Macron’s pensions on Thursday, Rodrigues told an angry, cheering crowd outside the National Assembly that the goal was now only the “defeat” of the president.
At the same time, protests broke out in many parts of France, with some protesters destroying street furniture, breaking windows and setting garbage cans on fire.
In the central French city of Dijon, protesters burned effigies of Macron.
The CGT has announced that it will force the closure of energy giant TotalEnergies’ refinery in Normandy, north-west France, from this weekend.
The picket lines of the electric company Electricite de France would also be extended, the CGT said. And early Friday, CGT activists blocked Paris’ busy ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique.
The trade unions have already laid the responsibility for possible future problems at the government’s door.
“Obviously, when there is this much hatred and so many French people in the streets, the more radical elements take the floor,” said Laurent Escure, boss of the UNSA union.
“This is not what we want, but it will happen. And it is entirely the government’s fault,” he told AFP.
Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, has warned the government for weeks that there could be more trouble if protesters get the idea that the Yellow Vests are achieving more with violence than the established unions with their peaceful mass demonstrations.
“What are the democratic prospects in a country that cannot respond to 1.5 or 2 million people on the streets three times, but responded to a violent movement with a fifth of that number on the street?” he asked in an interview last month.
Macron made several concessions to the Yellow Vests.
Among other things, he abandoned the planned carbon tax and raised the wages of those on his minimum wage, which he estimates will cost the public finances a total of 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion).
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)