PARIS — Piles of stinking trash lay next to people sitting in Paris’ chic street cafes, uncollected for days. Torched cars and burned out tires litter some of the French capital's roads.
Paris is no stranger to political and popular unrest, but in recent days thousands have taken the streets and stormed police barricades, facing tear gas and water cannons in response.
Protesters across the country are angry about President Emmanuel Macron’s long-promised plans to raise the national retirement age from 62 to 64 during an acute cost-of-living crisis, exacerbated by spiralling inflation.
The French government says that with rising life expectancy the reform is essential to ensure that the pension system remains intact. But the policy’s critics are not convinced.
Their fury only increased after Macron, facing a divided Parliament and lacking the support of the right-wing Republican Party, instructed Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to invoke article 49.3 of the Constitution on Thursday, allowing the legislation to pass without a vote from lawmakers.
Thousands gathered Thursday in Place de la Concorde, which faces the National Assembly building, and sporadic protests persisted into the night. Large plumes of black smoke rose early Friday over Gare du Lyon, a busy rail station on the eastern side of town.
Protests also played out in many towns and cities, including Rennes in the west and the southern port city of Marseilles.
Some 310 people were arrested, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
The next nationwide day of strikes — the eighth in the last three months — is set for next Thursday, unions have said.
In the meantime, the piles of garbage littering Paris’ famous streets are a very visible — and pungent — symbol of the anger felt by public-sector workers over the pension plans. Paris City Hall estimates there are some 13,000 tons of it on the streets.
The city’s enormous tourist economy continued regardless, with tours of major sites ongoing. But the experience had some added and unwanted features.
Doris Arseguel, navigating a small group of Brazilian tourists through the narrow cobblestone streets of the garbage littered 5th arrondissement, told them to be careful of any rats, which are having a field day.
“It’s very difficult to show the beauty of Paris to tourists with all the garbage and barricades,” Arseguel, 53, told NBC News. “Paris’ beauty is completely covered up now. It’s become too much.”
The anti-reform cause has also been enthusiastically taken up by young people, who face working longer under tighter financial constraints.
At the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV school in central Paris, around 100 students blocked the entrance Friday morning in protest of the policies of Macron, an illustrious former student.
A stone’s throw from the 18th-century Panthéon, the monument that houses the remains of the French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, the students clapped and cheered wildly, chanting: “Macron, you’re done! Your high school is on the streets!”
“I want to get my voice to be heard because it’s the only way we can show we don’t agree with what’s going on. It’s important for the young to tell what they feel because without a voice you don’t count,” said Emma Mendzesel, 16.
Soren Lafarge, also 16, said the students were making their voices heard despite not having the right to strike or vote in elections.
“We are here to show that we support the movement against the pension reform of the people and that we are all against that kind of system of democracy where you can pass a law without a vote and that we advocate a better democracy,” he said.
This week’s civil unrest was the capital’s worst since the gillet jaunes, or yellow vest, protests in 2018 and 2019, which were triggered largely by the cost of gas but evolved into a populist movement against Macron’s centrist, technocratic government.
Those protests ended in a partial U-turn, with Macron scrapping a carbon tax rise. But there is much less chance of him reversing the pension age plan, which was a key manifesto commitment ahead of his re-election win last summer.
But the saga is far from over.
Opposition lawmakers say they will present motions of no-confidence in Prime Minister Borne, who pushed the reform through, calling for her to resign. Parliamentary votes on this are expected over the weekend or on Monday.
But even if they succeed in removing her from office, Macron is unlikely to change course, according to Rainbow Murray, an expert in French politics at Queen Mary University of London.
“Macron is secure, he’s elected on a five-year term. But his reputation is damaged. This is obviously bad and not what he wanted. He wanted a parliamentary majority but couldn’t achieve it,” Murray said.
Borne, she added, “risks being the scapegoat in order to cleanse himself of all this.”
Unlike most political leaders in such a febrile situation, it could be that Macron isn’t all that worried, Murray said.
“He’s well-positioned to do it: he’s a second-term president, he can’t run for a third, and unlike pretty much every president before him he doesn’t care in the same way about his party’s legacy because his party was created around him — his party is him.” she said.
“I’m sure people within his party are concerned about this, but he doesn’t have the loyalty to the bigger picture in the way that others do," Murray said. "In a way he’s got political capital to burn, and he’s burning it.”
Nancy Ing and Bill O’Reilly reported from Paris, and Patrick Smith from London.