Fresh clashes rock France as protests shift to water dispute
SAINTE-SOLINE, FRANCE - French police again clashed with protesters Saturday as campaigners in the southwest sought to stop the construction of giant water storage facilities, the latest flashpoint as social tensions erupt nationwide.
The violent scenes at Sainte-Soline came after days of unrest over President Emmanuel Macron's pensions reform, which forced 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 police and protesters clashing daily in Paris and other cities over the past week.
At Sainte-Soline, several protesters and members of security forces were injured in Saturday's confrontations at the banned protest. Campaigners there are trying to stop the construction of giant water "basins" to irrigate crops, which they say will distort access to water amid drought conditions.
A long procession of activists set off late morning for the site, numbering at least 6,000 people according to local authorities -- around 30,000 according to the organisers.
"While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water," said the organisers.
Once they arrived at the construction site, which was defended by the police and gendarmes, clashes quickly broke out between the more radical activists and the security forces, AFP correspondents said.
The authorities had mobilised more than 3,000 police officers and paramilitary gendarmes to guard the site.
Protesters threw various projectiles, including improvised explosives, while police responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
- 'Completely inexcusable' -
According to the latest figures from the prosecutor's office, seven demonstrators were injured, including three who had to be taken to hospital. In addition, 28 gendarmes were injured, two of them badly enough that they had to be hospitalised.
Two journalists were also injured.
The alliance of activist groups behind the protests said 200 of their number had been injured, and one of them was fighting for their life, information not confirmed by the authorities.
In a tweet supporting the work of the emergency services there, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced "the intolerable wave of violence" at Sainte-Soline.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin also condemned the violence, blaming elements from the "ultra-left and the extreme left".
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 government is bracing for another difficult day on Tuesday when unions are due to hold another round of strikes and protests. That would have fallen on the second full day of Charles's visit.
The recent scenes in France have sparked astonishment abroad. "Chaos reigns in France," said the Times of London above a picture of rubbish piling up.
In France, 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 inflamed when Macron exercised a controversial executive power to push the plan through parliament without a vote last week.
The streets of the capital are 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.
On Friday, the Council of Europe warned that sporadic violence in protests "cannot justify excessive use of force".
Macron has 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 another 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 four-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.
Borne is under particular pressure.
But she told a conference on Saturday: "I will not give up on building compromises...
"I am here to find agreements and carry out the transformations necessary for our country and for the French," she said. - Benoît Petit / AFP