Hundreds of thousands of union members protest pension reform in France

(Update 1: Reledes, rewrites, adds info on demonstrations, violence)

Paris, May 1 (EFE).- French unions took to the streets on Monday, with hundreds of thousands of people turning out on May 1 in a new show of force against pension reform, the 13th such demonstration so far this year.

The leaders of the unions, which marched and demonstrated together – something that has not occurred since May 1, 2009 – called the turnout “historic”, although violent groups took advantage of the situation to create a certain amount of mayhem.

The General Confederation of Labor (CFT) said that 2.3 million people demonstrated around the country – 550,000 of them in Paris – which according to its own tally would be the second record-setting day in terms of turnout since the movement against pension reform got under way on Jan. 19.

On the other hand, the French Interior Ministry said that 782,000 demonstrators hit the streets across France, with 112,000 of them marching in the capital.

Although the marches transpired without incident in the great majority of the 300 or so that were organized throughout the country, there were assorted clashes in Nantes, Lyon, Angers, Toulouse and, in particular, in Paris.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told reporters shortly before 8 pm that 108 security personnel had been injured in the clashes and 291 people had been arrested, adding that “this violence must be condemned by everyone.”

Nineteen police officers were injured in Paris, where clashes were continuing late in the afternoon and early evening near Place de la Nacion.

Darmanin said that he hoped that the authors of the attacks on police and property would receive “firm punishment” and emphasized that for months the presence of members “of the ultra-left” has been noted at the protests, asserting that some 2,000 such demonstrators were now mobilized.

In the capital, skirmishes between security forces and radical groups were continuous all during the march between the Place de la Republique and Place de la Nacion, with the demonstrators smashing store and bank windows and burning trash bins and all sorts of urban furniture.

Police fired tear gas and, toward the end of the march, used water cannons to disperse the rioters and also to extinguish a fire that broke out – or was set – in the basement of a building on the Place de la Nacion.

One police officer was serious burned when he was struck with a Molotov cocktail.

The forces of order used drones to monitor the marches, a move that had sparked controversy in recent days and which motivated some people to turn to the courts to prevent it, arguing that the use of such devices curtails public freedoms.

The courts, however, did not agree with those claims with the single exception of the city of Rouen, where magistrates limited the amount of time and the area in which police could use drones to the immediate site and duration of the demonstration there.

According to the Prefecture in the Department of the Rhone, using drones enabled law enforcement authorities to arrest about 30 people who were causing incidents in Lyon.

A total of 12,000 police were deployed around the country by the Interior Ministry, 5,000 of them in Paris.

Before the Paris march began, the head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), the country’s largest union, Laurent Berger, had reiterated his condemnation of “any form of violence against property and persons,” at the same time that he said that that was not what attention should be focused on.

The objective of the unions – above all – was, he said, to reiterate their rejection of the pension reform implemented more than two weeks ago that raised the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, a move by the government of President Emmanuel Macron that has enabled the unions to remain united.

But that unity could begin to fracture, with Berger saying that he will attend a meeting that is expected to be called in the coming days by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to discuss other issues, an attempt by the government to turn the page on a crisis that has plunged it into a disturbing paralysis.

The head of the CFT, France’s second-largest union, Sophie Binet, although she agreed with Berger on the urgency of addressing the adjustment of salaries and wages, as workers lose purchasing power due to inflation, said she was less willing to meet and discuss non-pension related issues with the government.

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