Demonstrations against the government’s use of a special constitutional provision, known as Article 49.3, to wipe out parliamentary opposition to the reform have been angrier than ever in the past two months.
Unions, united in coordinating their protests, called for a ninth day of strikes this Thursday, but many feared they could lose control of the protests if more radical protesters took the lead.
“Yes, we are concerned,” Cyril Chabanier, the head of the moderate CFTC union, told AFP.
Commentators are beginning to wonder if 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 grew into the largest social action against Macron in his first term in office.
>> A year of revolt: how yellow vests left an ‘indelible mark’ on French politics
“It’s a social law of physics,” says Jean-Marie Pernot, a political scientist specializing in trade unions.
“If you don’t respect any of the channels intended for expressing dissent, it will find a way to express itself directly,” he told AFP.
The yellow vests’ early action was marked by strikes, weekly demonstrations, the blocking of roads and fuel depots, and the worst clashes with riot police in decades.
It was only with the imposition of movement restrictions due to the Covid crisis that the movement’s actions were halted.
‘Harder action ahead’
“There may be tougher, more serious and far-reaching measures,” warned Fabrice Coudour, a leading energy sector representative for the far-left CGT Union.
“It could well elude our collective decision-making,” he said.
The yellow vests boasted that they had no designated leaders. They oppose attempts by left-wing politicians and unions to use the energy of the movement for their own purposes.
One of their more prominent spokespersons was Jerome Rodrigues, who lost an eye to a rubber police bullet during clashes at a demonstration.
Within hours of Macron’s pensions being moved on Thursday, Rodrigues told an angry, cheering crowd outside the National Assembly that the goal was now nothing less than “the defeat” of the president.
At the same time, protests broke out in large parts of France, with some demonstrators destroying street furniture, smashing windows and setting rubbish bins on fire.
Protesters burned effigies of Macron in the central French city of Dijon.
The CGT announced it would force the closure of energy giant TotalEnergies’ Normandy refinery in northwestern France starting this weekend.
Picket lines at electric utility Electricite de France would also be extended, the CGT said. And early on Friday, CGT activists blocked Paris’ busy ring road, the Boulevard Périphérique.
The unions have already placed responsibility for any future problems with the government.
“It is clear that when there is so much anger and so many French people on the street, the more radical elements speak out,” said Laurent Escure, head of the UNSA trade union federation.
“This is not what we want, but it will happen. And it will be entirely the government’s fault,” he told AFP.
For weeks, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate trade union CFDT, warned the government that more trouble could ensue if protesters got the idea that the Yellow Vests were achieving more through force than the established unions with their peaceful, mass demonstrations.
“What is the democratic prospects for a country that three times fails to respond to 1.5 or 2 million people on the streets, but responds to a violent movement with a fifth of that number on the streets?” he asked in an interview last month.
Macron made a number of concessions to the Yellow Vest movement.
Among other things, he scrapped a planned carbon tax and raised minimum wage salaries, at a total estimated cost to public finances of 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion).
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)