?? Mass strikes and protests grip France in defiance of Macron's pension reforms
French unions on Thursday are holding their first mass demonstrations since President Emmanuel Macron inflamed public anger by forcing a higher retirement age through parliament without a vote.
Strikes are upending travel, and blockades are expected at ports, refineries and garbage dumps.
Violence has intensified in recent days at scattered protests against the pension reform and Macron’s leadership.
In Marseilles, the leader of the left-wing Insoumis party Jean-Luc Mélenchon urged protesters to stay calm today.
"The first instruction is that each and everyone keep their cool but do not let themselves be intimidated in any way", he said, denouncing Emmanuel Macron as employing "the strategy of paralysis, of provocation and chaos".
Calling on everyone to "throw all their strength into the battle" against the pension reform, Mélenchon joked about those who "gargle about the supposed violence" of the demonstrations.
"There is no violence in the movement that we are experiencing and that there are here or there four or five garbage cans burning is nothing compared to what we have seen in the past".
Macron is stubbornly resisting the growing discontent on the streets of France, saying Wednesday that the pension bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 must be implemented by the end of the year.
Critics attacked Macron for the remarks, describing him as "self-satisfied," "out of touch" and "offensive."
The president’s comments Wednesday were his first since the government forced the pension bill through parliament last week for lack of enough support. The government then survived two no-confidence votes in the lower chamber of parliament Monday.
The bill must now pass a review by France’s Constitutional Council before becoming law.
The 45-year-old centrist president, in his second and final term, repeatedly said he was convinced that France’s retirement system needed to be modified to keep it financed. Opponents propose other solutions including higher taxes on the wealthy or companies, which Macron says would hurt the economy.
On Thursday the Ministry of Education estimated that around 20% of teachers are on strike -- unions claim it is closer to 50% -- while France's civil aviation authority is asking airlines to cancel 30% of their flights at Paris-Orly airport, and 20% of flights at other French airports due to strike action.