© Reuters. Fire emerges as people attend a demonstration on Place de la Concorde to protest the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote b
By Dominique Vidalon
PARIS (Reuters) -Refinery strikes persisted in France on Saturday and more demonstrations were taking place throughout the country amid anger at the government pushing through a rise in the state pension age without a parliamentary vote.
The growing unrest, combined with rubbish piling up on the streets of Paris after refuse workers joined in the action, has left President Emmanuel Macron with the gravest challenge to his authority since the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) protests of December 2018.
Some 37% of operational staff at TotalEnergies’ refineries and depots – at sites including Feyzin in southeast France and Normandy in the north – were on strike on Saturday, a company spokesperson said.
Meanwhile rolling strikes continued on the railways.
Riot police clashed with protesters on Friday evening in Paris as a demonstration took place at the capital’s Place de la Concorde, near the Assemblee Nationale parliament building, resulting in 61 arrests.
This led the Paris Prefecture on Saturday to ban rallies on Place de la Concorde and the nearby Champs-Elysees.
A further rally was however slated for later on Saturday on Place d’Italie in southern Paris.
Elsewhere in the French capital, a group of students and activists from the “Revolution Permanente” collective briefly invaded the Forum des Halles shopping mall, waving banners calling for a general strike and shouting “Paris stand up, rise up”, videos on social media showed.
BFM television also showed images of demonstrations underway in cities such as Compiegne in the north, Nantes in the west and Marseille in the south.
“There is no place for violence. One must respect parliamentary democracy,” Digital Transition and Telecommunications Minister Jean-Noel Barrot told Sud radio.
A broad alliance of France’s main unions has said it would continue to mobilise to try to force a U-turn on the changes. A day of nationwide industrial action is scheduled for Thursday.
While eight days of nationwide protests since mid-January, and many local industrial actions, have so far been largely peaceful, the unrest over the last three days is reminiscent of the Yellow Vest protests which erupted in late 2018 over high fuel prices, and which forced Macron into a partial U-turn on a carbon tax.
Macron’s overhaul raises the pension age by two years to 64, which the government says is essential to ensure the system does not go bust.