By Juliette Jabkhiro and Stephane Mahe
PARIS/NANTES, France (Reuters) -Black-clad groups set fire to garbage cans and threw projectiles at police in Paris who responded with teargas, on the fringes of a march against President Emmanuel Macron and his deeply unpopular pension bill.
Clashes also erupted in similar rallies in cities including Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse, with a bank branch and cars set ablaze in Nantes.
However, while public frustration has evolved into broader anti-Macron sentiment, the level of violence on Tuesday was nowhere near that seen last week and rallies were otherwise largely peaceful.
Earlier in the day, the government rejected a new demand by unions to suspend and rethink the pension bill, which will delay retirement age by two years to 64, infuriating labour leaders who said the government must find a way out of the crisis.
The government said it was more than willing to talk to unions, but on other topics, and repeated it would stand firm on the pension front.
Millions of people have been demonstrating and joining strike action since mid-January to show their opposition to the bill.
The protests have intensified since the government used special powers to push the bill through parliament without a vote.
Police said 93,000 people marched in Paris on Tuesday, fewer than the record 119,000 at the demonstration on March 23, but more than or equal to earlier demonstrations since January.
One protester in Paris captured the mood, brandishing a banner that read: “France is angry”.
“The (pension) bill has acted as a catalyst for anger over Macron’s policies,” 31-year-old Fanny Charier, who works for the Pole Emploi office for job seekers, said at the same rally.
Macron, who promised to deliver pension reform in both of his presidential campaigns, says change is needed to keep the country’s finances in balance. Unions and opposition parties say there are other ways to do that.
“We have proposed a way out … and it’s intolerable that we are being stonewalled again,” the head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, told reporters at the start of a rally in Paris.
In the last big day of protests on Thursday, “Black Bloc” anarchists smashed shop windows, demolished bus stops and ransacked a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris, with similar acts in other cities.
That was some of the worst street violence in years in France, bringing scenes reminiscent of unrest by supporters of the yellow-vest movement during Macron’s first term.
On Tuesday, rallies were initially largely peaceful, with some clashes on the fringes.
In the western city of Nantes, the boarded-up front of a BNP Paribas bank branch was set on fire. A car was set on fire in the margins of the rally, while some shot fireworks at police.
“I’m non-violent but I understand people who go that far,” 69-year old retired postman Noel Cassin said in Nantes.
“If you just go and demonstrate, sing songs and eat sausages, then go home after losing a day’s work (and not getting any result), it’s useless.”
Also in western France, protesters blocked the Rennes ring road and set an abandoned car on fire. In Paris and in Marseille, protesters blocked train tracks for a while.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin had said on Monday that authorities were anticipating a “very serious risk to public order” at demonstrations on Tuesday.
Rolling strikes in the transport, aviation and energy sectors continued to disrupt travel.
However, in a move bringing some relief for Parisians and tourists alike, city garbage collectors said they were suspending their weeks-long strike that has left the roads around famous landmarks strewn with piles of trash.
And there were fewer teachers on strike than on previous days. Union leaders have pointed to high inflation making it harder for workers to sacrifice a day’s pay on the picket line.
There also were fewer protesters in Marseille and other cities than at previous rallies.
Nonetheless, about 17% of all fuel stations in France were missing at least one product as of Monday night, France’s petroleum association UFIP said, citing energy ministry data.
Charles de Courson, from the opposition Liot party, said French authorities should learn from the situation in Israel, where the government just hit pause on a controversial justice overhaul.
(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Stephane Mahe, Antony Paone, Bertrand Boucey, Eric Gaillard, Elizabeth Pineau, Marc Leras, Forrest Crellin, Jean-Michel Belot; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)
A masked protester throws tear gas canisters back amid clashes at a demonstration as part of the tenth day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform in Nantes, France, March 28, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe