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Protests against pension reforms intensify across France

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In France, trains are stopped. An airport road is blockaded. Gas stations are short on fuel, all because of protests against an increase in the retirement age. Those demonstrations are also growing. At least a million protesters were in the streets yesterday, and organizers claimed there were at least 3 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in French).

FADEL: For the latest, we're joined now by reporter Lisa Bryant in Paris. Hi, Lisa.

LISA BRYANT: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So I mean, these protests have been going on for some three months now, but they've really intensified in the last few days. What's going on?

BRYANT: Well, you know, you're absolutely right. Yesterday saw one of the biggest protests over the pension reform so far. And it shows that anger remains high over President Macron's reform, which was rammed through lower house without a vote, using a special constitutional measure. And violence and vandalism are growing. Yesterday's protests saw dozens of police injured and people arrested. And people I talked to out on the streets yesterday say they'll keep protesting. They want to force Macron to repeal his reform through the street.

FADEL: Well, has Macron given any indication that he's willing to do that?

BRYANT: No, he's not. He hasn't given a - he's basically saying he shows no signs so far of giving up, even though his government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote this week by just nine votes. He spoke on television Wednesday, saying the pension reform is necessary to save this system from going broke. He says he's ready to pay the price of unpopularity, and he wants the reform to become law by year's end. He's also in his second and last term in office, so he doesn't have to worry about getting reelected. Macron also says he respects the right to peaceful protest, and Wednesday he appeared to offer an opening to unions, but on other issues.

FADEL: So what is the opposition saying?

BRYANT: Well, the opposition says Macron isn't listening to the street and that he's scorning the voice of the people. They're looking for other ways to stop the reform becoming law, including by petitioning the Constitutional Council - that's the highest constitutional authority - or organizing a referendum. Both options could take months, and it's not at all certain that either could succeed.

FADEL: Now, you mentioned him surviving this no-confidence vote this week, but barely. And these protests aren't slowing down. So how does this end?

BRYANT: That's the million-dollar question. Nobody really knows how this will end. It's affecting France's image abroad. The strikes have briefly closed tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower, and Britain's King Charles makes his first state visit here next week. French authorities say he'll be welcomed well, but striking workers are reportedly refusing to roll out a red carpet for the monarch. And his visit coincides with another nationwide protest set for Tuesday. For example, Charles is supposed to go to Bordeaux that day, and protesters yesterday briefly set its city hall on fire. Some are worried unions are losing control of the protests and that they could turn into another chaotic yellow-vest-type movement that we saw in France a few years ago.

FADEL: That's reporter Lisa Bryant in Paris. Thanks, Lisa.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.