New violent clashes rock France in water protest

Protesters walk in a field during a demonstration called by the collective “Bassines non merci”, the environmental movement “Les Soulevements de la Terre” and the French trade union ´Confederation paysanne´ to protest against the construction of a new water reserve for agricultural irrigation, in Sainte-Soline, central-western France, on March 25, 2023.—AFP
  • Several protesters and security forces were wounded in the clashes.
  • Multiple projectiles, improvised explosives thrown by protesters.
  • Twenty-four members of the security forces were wounded.

SAINTE-SOLINE: 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 has 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 Sainte-Soline as campaigners sought to stop the construction of reservoirs for the agricultural industry.

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.

“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”).

Around the construction site, defended by the police, violent clashes quickly broke out between the security forces and radical militants, AFP correspondents said.

‘Completely inexcusable’

Multiple projectiles and improvised explosives were thrown by protesters, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.

Twenty-four members of the security forces were wounded, one very seriously, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. Seven protesters were wounded, also one very seriously. Both seriously wounded individuals were evacuated by helicopter.

“This eruption of violence is completely inexcusable,” Darmanin told reporters in Paris, blaming elements on the “extreme left and the ultra-left”.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne condemned an “intolerable spiral of violence” at the protest.

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 an 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 round 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 a 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.

Meanwhile, Macron has faced accusations from the left that he removed a luxury watch in the middle of a television interview Wednesday, fearing images of the timepiece could further damage his reputation.

‘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 with The Council of Europe warning that sporadic violence in protests “cannot justify excessive use of force”.

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.

In a sign of the febrile atmosphere, the leader of Macron’s faction in parliament Aurore Berge posted on Twitter a handwritten letter she received threatening her 4-month-old baby with physical violence, prompting expressions of solidarity across the political spectrum.

It remains unclear how the government will defuse the crisis, four years after the “Yellow Vest” demonstrations rocked the country, with Borne under particular pressure.

“I will not give up on building compromises,” Borne told a conference on Saturday.

“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,” she said.

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