The angry French and the happy Aussies in the City of Light

Paris: Some scenes on the streets of Paris during the past seven weeks would have challenged even the rose-tinted views from the famed lyricist Cole Porter.

It seems the American, who declared in his 1953 song he loved the place in the springtime, in the fall and every moment of the year, clearly never contended with striking rat catchers hurling dead rodents at city hall.

Paris was disrupted by another day of protests on Thursday as unions vowed to defeat President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, which raises the retirement age, among other changes.

People demonstrate against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform in central Paris, France, on Thursday.Credit: Bloomberg

While hundreds of thousands of striking teachers, gas workers and train drivers again marched peacefully, some rallies descended into clashes with police on the fringes of a large, union-led march through the streets of the capital. Groups clad in black lobbed paint and other projectiles – including cobblestones – at police, who responded with tear gas. Some protesters smashed the outside of a bank branch.

Firefighters had to extinguish a blaze on the awning of the well-known brasserie La Rotonde, where Macron – away in China – held his election-night party in 2017. And earlier in the day, before thousands gathered outside the National Assembly, dozens of rail workers carrying flares and banners temporarily occupied the lobby of an office block where the investment firm BlackRock has premises.

Thousands of tonnes of rubbish which had built up since January have been cleared in recent days after breakthrough workplace talks with garbage collectors, but many of the city’s parks are still plastered with signs warning Parisians and tourists not to leave food scraps out.

Natacha Pommet, a leader of the public services branch of the CGT trade union, told the AP the rat catchers wanted “to show the hard reality of their mission” and that opposition to Macron’s pension reform was morphing into a wider movement of worker grievances over salaries and other complaints.

The City of Light, which will this year host the Rugby World Cup ahead of the Summer Olympics in 2024, is battling to retain its title as the world’s most loved tourist destination while the country is continually ground to a halt.

Police estimated that 570,000 people took part in marches nationally on Thursday, down from 740,000 a week earlier, when crowds were already smaller than a high point on March 23 when more than one million people turned out. In Paris, unions say that 400,000 people took to the streets, down from 450,000 the week before, while police put the figure at much less than half of that.

Protesters run through tear gas in Nantes, western France, on Thursday.Credit: AP

Outside the Eiffel Tower, the most visited attraction in the world, electric signs apologised for it being closed. But Charles, selling tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus, declared to one tourist: “We’re always running, strikes or not”. But he spoke too soon, as even a 12-tonne double-decker bus couldn’t find its way through the crowds and traffic jams which clogged many of the bridges crossing the Seine.

Australian tourist Diane Lee, from Tongala in northern Victoria, made it to Paris with her sister Carly MacDonald, a school teacher from Shepparton, on once-in-a-lifetime European tour to celebrate a milestone birthday. Having wanted to visit its iconic tourist attractions for years – from the Moulin Rouge to the grave of Doors frontman Jim Morrison – the pair did not expect what they saw.

“I felt like we were witnessing something we normally wouldn’t have, but at the same time I was relieved where we were staying was clean, and we only saw and smelt rubbish in other parts of Paris,” Diane said, stressing that the police presence made them feel safe at all times.

Diane Lee, from Tongala, and her sister Carly MacDonald, from Shepparton East, didn’t let the protests ruin their Paris holiday.

“The main people protesting were not the problem. The night-time trouble-makers were setting fire to everything. Also, all our tour operators and Uber drivers kept commenting about how French people were spoilt and loved complaining. Given I won’t be able to retire until I am 75, I thought it was a bit petty.”

Any outsider who spends time in Paris will quickly notice that although a 35-hour-week was introduced in 2000, the French still work far fewer hours than Britons or most European Union neighbours. The minimum holiday entitlement of 30 days a year – plus 11 public holidays – is the highest in Europe.

The French pension system is funded on a pay-as-you go basis and remains one of the most generous in Europe. Consequently, it is one of the most expensive. Macron’s logic is that rising life expectancy has made the existing model unaffordable. The state pension fund’s deficit is set to surge to €13.5 billion ($22.2 billion) by 2030. The proposed retirement age of 64, from 62 currently, will also still be below that of most of France’s neighbours.

Unions had been hoping for a mass turnout on the 11th day of action since January, after signs the protest movement was starting to lose momentum. But Luc Rouban, director at the Politics Research Centre at Sciences Po, a prestigious Parisian university, told French breakfast television the rise in violence was turning off some less-activist workers.

“The demonstrations have become more violent as they’ve gone on. That means many in France are now staying away,” he said.

For the eleventh time in over two months, unions called on opponents of the pension reform to take to the streets of France.Credit: Getty Images

As well as raising the minimum age to 64 for most workers, the reforms will require people to work for 43 years to receive a full pension, which unions argue is too harsh, especially for those with physically demanding jobs.

The stand-off has seriously eroded Macron’s popularity, with a poll suggesting this week that far-right leader Marine Le Pen would beat him if the presidential election of last year were held now. The survey, from the Elabe group, indicated Le Pen would score 55 per cent and Macron 45 per cent if they faced each other in a run-off vote.

Young workers appear especially angered by Macron’s high-handedness at bypassing parliament to pass the reform, expanding the dispute into one about democracy and political legitimacy. According to an Ifop poll this month, some 72 per cent of people under 35 are opposed to any rise in the retirement age, compared with 61 per cent of over-35s.

Unemployment in France is at 7.2 per cent – its lowest since 2008 – but the president is not getting any of the thanks. Such is the anger over ramming through the new pensionable age without a vote that he might struggle to pass any laws in the next four years, unless he dares to resort to ramming them through again.

Recent protests have attracted more students and even secondary school children, while schools and universities have been closed by strikes. Signs inspired by internet culture have made their appearance alongside trade union banners, including one proclaiming “This is Fine”, with a serene-looking dog in the middle of a fire.

“We’re still asking for the reform to be revoked,” Laurent Berger, the head of the centrist CFDT union, told RTL radio. “We’re in the middle of a social crisis, a democratic crisis.”

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