PARIS: Violent protests against pension reform in France led to the postponement Friday of King Charles III’s trip to the country, highlighting the growing security and political problems faced by President Emmanuel Macron.
Charles’ first foreign trip as monarch had been intended to highlight warming Franco-British relations, but it has instead served to underline the severity of demonstrations engulfing Britain’s neighbour.
Macron asked for the postponement during talks on Friday morning, a UK government spokesperson said, with the change blamed on a call for fresh strikes next Tuesday on the second day of the king’s tour.
The decision to postpone was made “in order to be able to welcome His Majesty King Charles III in conditions which reflect our friendly relations”, a statement from Macron’s office said.
More than 450 people were arrested on Thursday and 441 members of the security forces were injured during the most violent day of protests since the start of the year against Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age to 64, according to interior ministry figures.
More than 900 fires were also lit around Paris, with radical anarchist groups blamed for setting uncollected rubbish ablaze and smashing shop windows, leading to frequent clashes with riot police.
In southwestern Bordeaux, protesters set fire to the ancient wooden entrance to city hall, while other clashes took place in Rennes, Nantes and Toulouse.
Charles III had been set to visit the Bordeaux city hall on Tuesday after a day in Paris on Monday when he was scheduled to address the Senate and attend a state banquet at the Palace of Versailles.
Some Parisians felt the cancellation would avoid further embarrassment for France, with the streets of the capital strewn with rubbish because of a strike by waste collectors and protesters threatening to disrupt the royal visit.
“It would be a wiser decision for him to come in a little while so that we avoid a disaster,” Annick Siguret, a retiree in her 60s, told AFP near overflowing bins and a vandalised bank in the capital’s ninth district.
The second leg of Charles’ European tour — to Germany — is expected to proceed as scheduled on Wednesday.
Over a million
More than a million people marched in France on Thursday, with the protest movement reinvigorated by Macron’s tactics and statements over the last week.
Uproar over the legislation to change the retirement age — which Macron pushed through parliament without a vote last week — has created another huge domestic crisis for the president just 10 months into his second term in office.
“I condemn the violence and offer my full support to the security forces who worked in an exemplary manner,” Macron told reporters Friday during a trip to Brussels.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a hardliner in the centrist government, dismissed calls from political opponents and protesters to withdraw the bid to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62.
“I don’t think we should withdraw this law because of violence,” he told the CNews channel.
Macron’s decision to force the legislation through parliament and his refusal to back down in a television interview on Wednesday appeared to have energised many opponents on Thursday.
“There’s the substance — the reform of the pension system — and then there’s the other issue of how democracy functions,” 21-year-old student Judicael Juge told AFP during the protests.
“I think that is more of a source of anger now.”
Commentators are questioning how the crisis will end, just four years after the “Yellow Vest” anti-government demonstrations rocked the country.
“No one knows where the way out lies. There’s not an easy one,” political scientist Bastien Francois from the Sorbonne University in Paris told AFP.
“Everything depends on one man who is a prisoner of the political situation.”
The leader of the moderate CFDT union, Laurent Berger, said Friday he had spoken to an aide to the president and suggested a pause on implementing the pensions law for six months.
“It’s the moment to say ‘listen, let’s put things on pause, let’s wait six months’,” Berger told RTL radio. “It would calm things down.”
Piles of partially burnt rubbish littered the streets of Paris on Friday, while blockades of oil refineries by striking workers are beginning to create fuel shortages around the country.
The ministry of energy transition on Thursday warned that kerosene supply to the capital and its airports was becoming “critical”.
More flights were cancelled this weekend at airports around the country due to a strike by air traffic controllers.