Hooded, black-clad demonstrators clashed with police in Paris as thousands of people joined traditional May Day protests across France to demand social and economic justice and voice their opposition to government plans to change unemployment benefits.
Police arrested 46 people on Saturday in the capital, where rubbish bins were set on fire and the windows of a bank branch were smashed, momentarily delaying the march. Authorities also reported five arrests and 27 police officers injured in Lyon. But most of the dozens of marches across France passed off without incident.
More than 106,000 people marched throughout France, including 17,000 in Paris, according to the interior ministry.
Trade unionists were joined by members of the Yellow Vest movement, which triggered a wave of anti-government protests three years ago, and by workers from sectors hit hard by pandemic restrictions such as culture.
Marchers, most wearing masks in line with coronavirus rules, carried banners reading, “Dividends, not unemployment benefits are the income of lazy people” and “We want to live, not survive”.
“In terms of why people have come out on the street, there’s been a range of issues and causes; everything from climate change to people thinking the government hasn’t done enough during the pandemic to trade unions who are calling for better wages and better working conditions,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.
A pensioner who gave her name as Patricia to AFP news agency said: “There are so many motivations for a revolt that are building up – the management of COVID, the so-called reforms that are going to take away people’s ability to live, job-seekers who are going to lose their benefits.”
“We absolutely need to express ourselves,” the 66-year-old said.
The Prefecture de Police, which deployed 5,000 officers in Paris, said it had prevented “Black Bloc” anarchists from forming a group.
“Loads of money is going to those who have plenty and less for those who have nothing as reflected in the unemployment insurance reform plan that we want scrapped,” Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT labour union said.
About 300 rallies were organised in cities including Lyon, Nantes, Lille and Toulouse.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who plan to challenge President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential election, attended May Day events.
“My wish for the working class is that it can be free of the fear of being unemployed,” Melenchon told a march in Lille, adding he hoped to return to the northern city as president.
Le Pen, who had earlier laid a wreath in Paris at the statue of Joan of Arc, her party’s nationalist symbol, warned of “total chaos” if Macron is re-elected.
Macron, the former investment banker who won the presidency in 2017 promising a new way of doing politics, has seen his reform agenda become bogged down in fights with unions, while the pandemic has halted his planned pension system overhaul.
France, which has the world’s eighth-highest tally of coronavirus deaths, will start unwinding its third pandemic lockdown restrictions from Monday after a fall in infection rates.