France’s largest May Day marches in decades descended into violence as clashes saw one protester lose a hand while an officer suffered serious burns after being hit by a Molotov cocktail.
Some 782,000 people protested across France in a fresh display of fury against the French president’s pension reform, including 112,000 in Paris alone, the interior ministry said.
The CGT union put the figure at 2.3 million protesters across France, including 550,000 in the capital. The turnout was up to 10 times higher than on May Day in 2022, but smaller than the biggest protests seen against the pension reform this year so far.
Still, it was a significant show of strength from unions who had joined forces for Labour Day for the first time since 2009. Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France’s largest union, called it “historic”, the biggest in 30 years, and proof that this was no “swan song” for their three-month long protest movement.
But while unions had called for “festive” marches for workers’ rights and against Mr Macron’s law raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, many deplored the presence of thousands of “Black Blocks”, some who had travelled from abroad to take part in demonstrations in French cities.
In Paris, police officers were set alight by Molotov cocktails, with one suffering burns to their face and body, before being transferred to the hospital, according to state broadcaster France Télévisions.
Footage showed the flaming projectiles hitting the police in Paris’s 11th arrondissement. Footage showed another police officer knocked unconscious as his unit came under heavy fire from projectiles and fireworks. It turned out, however, that he was knocked down by “friendly fire” as a colleague hurled a stun grenade that slipped and landed on his team.
Protesters also vandalised shops and hurled stones as police responded with a water cannon, tear gas, riot guns and stun grenades.
A 28-year-old protester in Nantes was being treated after reportedly having his hand blown off by a stun grenade.
Some 13,000 police were deployed around France, including 5,000 in Paris where officers fired tear gas as black-clad protesters teamed up with their gilets jaunes counterparts in chanting: “Everyone hates the police.”
The clashes were worst in the Place de la Nation, where protesters set on fire a Vélib bike rental station that firemen struggled to put out as it spread to a neighbouring building.
There were at least 291 arrests in the country with more than 60 in Paris alone. It was reported that 108 police and dozens of protesters were injured, some seriously. Police deployed drones for the first time in the French capital and Bordeaux to pinpoint trouble spots.
Elisabeth Borne, the French prime minister, condemned “unacceptable” scenes of violence.
“If the vast majority of demonstrators were pacifists of course, in Paris, Lyon and Nantes in particular, the police face extremely violent thugs who came with one objective: to kill cops and attack the property of others,” said Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister.
There were violent clashes in the western city of Lyon where vandals fired fireworks and bangers at police, causing several injuries.
Unions deplored the presence of up to 1,000 vandals who they said had ruined their march.
The moderate CDFT, France’s biggest union, slammed their presence saying: “Our march is being manipulated by violent groups that have nothing to do with the battles we are waging.”
“It’s revolting, it’s unfair to all those who have mobilised in such high numbers,” said Sonia Paccaud, a local CFDT leader.
In Marseille, around 200 protesters briefly occupied the plush Intercontinental hotel and daubed “bourgeois are on the menu” on the walls. Sébastien Fournier, an FSU unionist, said that one of the hotel’s shareholders was investment fund giant Black Rock, which had advised Mr Macron over his pension reform.
In Paris, environmental activists vandalised a cultural centre linked to the richest man in the world.
The Louis Vuitton Foundation, to the east of the capital, is funded by LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate owned by Bernard Arnault, the 74-year-old multi-billionaire Frenchman who currently tops all global rich lists.
Spraying the building with paint, Extinction Rebellion activists said: “You’re watching direct action against the rich this May Day 2023.”
“All over the world, we’ll be hitting the streets in solidarity and resistance. This is how we do it, comrades.”
Other environmental activists daubed paint on Place Vendôme, which houses the Ritz.
One protester, Jean-Louis Pétraud, a retired state education worker, said: “I don’t condone violence but I understand it. Macron only knows how to be contemptuous. Whenever he talks to people, he looks down on them, like they’re fools. It is King Macron, in the pay of Europe and big money.”
“There has never been such a rejection of a president in the history of the Fifth Republic,” he told Le Monde.
Didier, 61, one of the gilet jaunes protesting in Paris, said: “In democracy, when the majority don’t want a law, whatever one might think, you withdraw it,” pointing to the fact that polls showed the vast majority of the French were against raising the retirement age.
“For me, [not listening to the will of the people] is fascism,” he claimed.
In a speech in Paris, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the figurehead of the Leftist opposition France Unbowed party, said that “Macron resign” was fast becoming “a desire and a mass popular hope”.
“On July 14, we’ll teach him the meaning of the word ‘insurrection’,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a speech in Le Havre, where she was feting May Day, Marine Le Pen, head of the populist National Rally party, accused Mr Macron of “feeding the temptation of street violence”.
“He wanted to put the country on the march, he broke it down”, she claimed.
“Rarely has a president been so disconnected, so lonely, so besieged, but still so arrogant. Rarely has a government been ghostly, vaporous and transparent,” she added.
After three months of demonstrations, Mr Macron rammed through his pension bill without a parliamentary vote as he lacked a majority. Almost three in four French people were unhappy with Mr Macron, a survey by the IFOP polling group found last month.
In recent days, he has embarked on a tour of provincial France in a bid to assuage public anger, and has been met by hundreds of protesters banging pots and pans to express their displeasure – an age-old practice.
His prime minister is due to invite the unions for talks on other reforms in areas such as labour and health.
However, labour representatives say they will not “turn the page” over pensions.
They “will not move onto anything else while the bill hasn’t been withdrawn,” warned Sophie Binet, head of the hardline CGT union.
“The president must return to reason.”