New violent clashes rock France in water protest
published : 25 Mar 2023 at 23:45
SAINTE-SOLINE (FRANCE) - French police again clashed with protesters Saturday as campaigners sought to stop the construction of reservoirs in the southwest, the latest in a series of violent standoffs as social tensions erupt nationwide.
The violent scenes in Sainte-Soline in western France came after days of violent protests nationwide over President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform that prompted the cancellation of a visit by King Charles III of the UK.
The protest movement against the pension reform have turned into the biggest domestic crisis of Macron's second mandate, with daily clashes in the streets of Paris and other cities between police and protesters.
Several protesters and members of security forces were wounded in the clashes around Saite-Soline as campaigners sought to stop the construction of reservoirs for the agricultural industry, according to the authorities.
A long procession set off late morning, comprising at least 6,000 people according to local authorities and around 25,000 according to the organisers.
More than 3,000 members of the security forces were deployed, with "at least 1,000" potentially violent activists, including some from Italy, present, officials said.
Around the construction site, defended by the police, violent clashes quickly broke out between the security forces and radical militants, AFP correspondents said.
- 'Simultaneously stand up' -
Multiple projectiles and improvised explosives were thrown by protesters, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.
Two protesters were seriously wounded, including one who was hospitalised with a brain injury, the authorities said.
Sixteen members of the security forces were wounded, six of whom were hospitalised regionally and one of whose injuries were so serious he was evacuated by helicopter.
"While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water," said the organisers gathering under the banner of "Bassines non merci" ("No to reservoirs, thank you").
Eleven people were detained after police seized cold weapons, including petanque balls and meat knives, as well as explosives.
While not directly related to the anti-pensions reform campaign, the clashes over the water reservoir construction have added to tensions in an increasingly challenging situation for the government.
The cancellation of Charles' state visit -- which was to be his very first abroad as monarch -- was a major embarrassment for Macron and acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation.
After the worst clashes yet of the three-month movement on Thursday night, protest activity has been less intense in the last 24 hours.
But the government is bracing for another torrid day on Tuesday when unions are due to hold another day of strikes and protests.
This would have been the second full day of Charles' visit, which now must find a new date in his packed calendar. Instead, Germany will be his first foreign destination as monarch.
The scenes in France have sparked astonishment abroad. "Chaos reigns in France," said the Times of London above a picture of rubbish piling up. "Macron surrenders to the mob," said the mass-circulation Daily Mail over the cancellation of the king's visit.
- 'I will not give up' -
Uproar over legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 was enflamed when Macron exercised a controversial executive power to push the plan through parliament without a vote last week.
The streets of the capital have also been strewn with rubbish because of a strike by waste collectors.
But there has also been controversy over the tactics used by the French security forces to disperse the protests.
The Council of Europe -- the continent's leading human rights watchdog -- warned that sporadic acts of violence "cannot justify excessive use of force by agents of the state" or "deprive peaceful protesters of their right to freedom of assembly".
Macron has defiantly refused to offer concessions, saying in a televised interview Wednesday that the changes needed to "come into force by the end of the year".
The Le Monde daily said Macron's "inflexibility" was now worrying even "his own troops" among the ruling party.
It remains unclear how the government will defuse the crisis, four years after the "Yellow Vest" demonstrations rocked the country, with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne under particular pressure.
"I will not give up seeking to convince," Borne told a conference on Saturday.
"I will not give up on building compromises. I will not give up on acting. I am here to find agreements and carry out the transformations necessary for our country and for the French."