On Place de la Nation in eastern Paris, fireworks explode over the central bronze Triumph of the Republic statue. The smell of grilled merguez and onions hangs in the air. On the grass, people sit in groups, beers in hand, rolling cigarettes. One man in rollerblades holds a Heineken. A bunch of breadsticks hang out of the back pocket of his cargo pants.
“It’s like 14 Juillet!”, someone jokes, likening the scene to France’s festive national holiday celebrations.
Then dozens of police officers, armed with shields and wielding batons, charge into the crowd. As quickly as they appear, they retreat through clouds of fresh tear gas. Food carts are rolled out of the way of the wind. People run.
This was the scene on Tuesday at the latest demonstration against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform bill, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. Around 740,000 people protested across France; most protestors are peaceful.
Most large-scale protests follow a pre-planned route, making them easier for residents and tourists to avoid. Many of them start or end at Bastille.
Tuesday marked the 10th official protest since 19 January, though recent weeks have seen more unplanned demonstrations as tensions flare.
The controversy surrounding Mr Macron’s pension reforms has evolved from retirement and economics into a debate about democracy. On 16 March, the government forced the bill through the National Assemblywithout a vote, via the contentious Article 49.3 of the constitution.
Though this is constitutional and has been done before, it has been widely criticised as undemocratic given the lack of public support for the reform, with around two thirds of the population opposing it. Protests have grown over the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, bin collectors’ strikes were suspended after thousands of tonnes of rubbish had collected on the capital’s streets over the previous three weeks. However, industrial action continues in other sectors. Unions have announced another day of strike action on 6 April.
During a demonstration last Thursday evening, police blocked off access to Opéra, the endpoint of the march in central Paris, for those who weren’t already at the protest. Police were stationed on street corners nearby as fires burned on the pavement. When I passed through, I heard one wide-eyed man ask a few officers, in English: “Um, excuse me? I’m staying at the Westin…”
The protests have extended into some tourist destinations. On Monday, the Louvre closed after dozens of museum workers blocked the entrance. But demonstrations are common in France and residents plan around them. The logistics, such as the date, time, route and transport disruptions are generally set in advance.
On Tuesday, thousands of people – 93,000 according to police, 450,000 according to unions – set off from Place de la République down Boulevard Voltaire toward Place de la Nation.
A giant photo of Mr Macron dressed as a king hovered over protesters near Saint-Ambroise church. In France, this is not a compliment. Art students carried a homemade sculpture of Élisabeth Borne, the Prime Minister, surrounded by cut-out middle fingers held up into the air on wooden rods.
Food stands selling burgers and churros dotted the route. Lots of stores along the boulevard stayed open while the crowd passed. Signs bearing the rallying cry “16-64, c’est une bière, pas une carrière” (“16-64 is a beer, not a career”) were common. Music varied from Aretha Franklin to LMFAO and live musicians. People chanted – against Macron, capitalism and the police, and for solidarity.
At around 4pm, I peeled off the march to grab a coffee. There had been a noticeable lack of police around the protest. But on the side streets, there were multiple groups with dozens of armed policemen seemingly on standby.
On Rue Faidherbe, the Brav-M unit – deployed to restore order during protests, but often accused of using violent tactics and currently under investigation – lined the street, its motorcycles parked on the pavement.
An hour later, the crowd on Boulevard Voltaire had become noticeably denser. Dark grey smoke started to billow through the air, from fires set on the street.
As the march moved into the Place de la Nation, police encircled the perimeter, tightening it by moving the trucks closer to the circle. One used a megaphone to ask people to leave. “No one’s listening to you!” someone yelled back.
From where I stood on the outskirts of the crowd, I saw street food carts rolling onto the circle. Groups converged on the grass, hanging out with drinks and snacks. Others sang, danced and played the drums. Some people threw fireworks and glass bottles of 1664 at police, who deflected them with shields.
Things came to a head at around 8pm. Police started pushing closer and more frequently into protesters, releasing tear gas and retreating. A girl standing next to me on the grass offered a vial of eye drops. Then a massive cloud began to form overhead, shrouding Marianne (the symbolic embodiment of the French Republic featured on the statue) in fog, and people ran. The police had blocked off most of the exits where I was, though the gas continued to waft through the air.
The police let people out through Avenue Dorian.
People started shouting: “To Bastille!”