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Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated across France on Saturday seeking to keep up pressure on the government over its pension reform plans, including a move to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62. 

Protesters marched in Paris, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and other cities in the hopes of keeping up the pressure on the government to back down.

After three days of nationwide strikes since the start of the year, unions were hoping to match a mass turnout from January 19 when more than a million people marched in opposition to the plans. 

The demonstrations drew young people and others opposed to the pension proposals who weren’t able to attend the previous three days of action, all held on weekdays.

Riot police officers stand by a burning car during clashes in Paris on February 11, 2023

Riot police officers stand by a burning car during clashes in Paris on February 11, 2023

Protesters set fire to a car in Paris during demonstration against plans to push back France's retirement age on February 11, 2023

Protesters set fire to a car in Paris during demonstration against plans to push back France’s retirement age on February 11, 2023

This time, rail worker strikes did not accompany the demonstrations, allowing trains and the Paris Metro to run on Saturday. 

However, an unexpected strike by air traffic controllers meant that up to half of flights to and from Paris’ second largest airport, Orly, were cancelled on Saturday afternoon.

In Paris, some workers and students who wanted to voice opposition attended the protests for the first time, owing to heavy weekday workloads.

‘We often hear that we should be too young to care, but with rising inflation, soaring electricity price, this reform will impact our families,’ Elisa Haddad, 18. said. 

‘It is my first demonstration because I couldn’t attend with uni. It is important that the voice of [France’s] parents and students is heard.’

Riot police contain protesters during the demonstration in Paris

Riot police contain protesters during the demonstration in Paris

Police officers clash with a protester during the demonstration in Paris

Police officers clash with a protester during the demonstration in Paris

Saturday’s protests featured flashes of unrest. 

One car and several trash bins were set on fire on a central Parisian boulevard as police charged the crowd and dispersed protesters with tear gas. Images also show a car in flames with riot police surrounding. 

Paris police said officers arrested eight people for infractions, ranging from possession of a firearm to vandalism.

Some demonstrators walked as families through the French capital’s Place de la Republique and carried emotional banners. ‘I don’t want my parents to die at work,’ read one, held by a teenage boy.

A riot police officer walks by a burning car during clashes in Paris

A riot police officer walks by a burning car during clashes in Paris

French riot police stand behind a car on fire on the sidelines of a demonstration in Paris on the fourth day of nationwide rallies organised since the start of the year against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul

French riot police stand behind a car on fire on the sidelines of a demonstration in Paris on the fourth day of nationwide rallies organised since the start of the year against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul

French lawmakers began a rowdy debate earlier this week on the pension bill to raise the minimum retirement age for a full state pension from 62 to 64. It is the flagship legislation of Macron’s second term. 

The protests are a crucial test both for Macron and his opponents. The government has insisted it’s determined to push through Macron’s election pledge to reform France’s generous pension system. 

Of the 38 member nations of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, France is among countries that spend the most years in retirement.

Riot police officers detain a protester during clashes in Paris on February  11, 2023

Riot police officers detain a protester during clashes in Paris on February  11, 2023

The president has called the reforms ‘indispensable’ for ensuring the long-term survival of the country’s pension system and noted that workers in neighbouring countries retire years later.

Despite opinion polls consistently showing growing opposition to the reform and his own popularity shrinking, Macron insisted that he’s living up to a key campaign pledge he made when he swept to power in 2017 and before his April 2022 reelection.

His government is now facing a harsh political battle in parliament that could span weeks or months.

Flames rise behind law enforcement officers in Paris during demonstrations on February 11, 2023

Flames rise behind law enforcement officers in Paris during demonstrations on February 11, 2023

Protesters hold a placards reading: 'There is an Alternative: 60 [years old]'

Protesters hold a placards reading: ‘There is an Alternative: 60 [years old]’

Strong popular resentment will strengthen efforts by labor unions and left-wing legislators to try to block the bill.

Unions issued a joint statement on Saturday, calling the government ‘deaf’ and demanding French officials scrap the bill. They threatened to cause a nationwide ‘shutdown’ from March 7, if their demands were not met.

A further strike is planned for February 16.

During the previous day of protests four days ago, over 750,000 people marched in many French cities, significantly fewer than on the previous two protest days in January in which over a million people took to the streets.

The French spend the largest number of years in retirement among OECD countries – a benefit which, opinion polls show, a substantial majority of people are reluctant to give up.

President Emmanuel Macron says the reform is ‘vital’ to ensuring the viability of the pension system.

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Early estimates showed that numbers had increased in Paris by about 20 per cent from the last protest on Tuesday, newspaper Le Figaro reported.

A burning car is seen in the street during demonstrations in Paris

Clashes with riot police took place during a rally against the French President's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 in Paris on February 11, 2023

Clashes with riot police took place during a rally against the French President’s plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 in Paris on February 11, 2023 

Protesters walk by a burnt out car during clashes in Paris on February 11, 2023

Protesters walk by a burnt out car during clashes in Paris on February 11, 2023

In the central western city of Tours where the turnout appeared substantially higher than in mid-January, 40-year-old fireman Anthony Chauveau said that opposing the reform was crucial because the difficulties of his job were simply not being taken into consideration.

‘They are telling us that we will need to work two more years… our life expectancy is lower than the majority of workers,’ he said.

The protests are the first on a weekend, when workers do not need to strike or take time off.

The opposition has suggested thousands of amendments to complicate the debate and ultimately try to force the government to pass the bill without a parliamentary vote and through decree, a move that could potentially sour the rest of Macron’s mandate.

Raising the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027, according to Labour Ministry estimates.

Unions say there are other ways to do this, such as taxing the super rich or asking employers or well-off pensioners to contribute more.

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