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French police accused of using arbitrary arrest to end pensions protest

By Michael Fitzpatrick - RFI
France  Jeff Pachoud / AFP
WED, 22 MAR 2023 LISTEN
© Jeff Pachoud / AFP

There have been 1,200 unauthorised demonstrations in France since last Thursday, "some of them violent", according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. There have been hundreds of arrests. Lawyers, magistrates and politicians have accused police officers of using "arbitrary arrest" in an attempt to stifle anti-government protests.

Forty-six people were arrested on Tuesday night in the latest clashes around Place de la Republique in Paris, while police used tear gas to disperse protests in other cities including Rennes and Nantes.

Those accusing the police of using "unjustified arrest" as a weapon to bring the protests to an end cite as proof the fact that the vast majority of detained demonstrators were released after a few hours, without any charges.

"Criminal law is being used by the government to deter demonstrators from exercising their right to protest," said Raphael Kempf, a lawyer specialising in human rights and freedoms.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez rejected the allegations, saying "there are no unjustified arrests".

President Emmanuel Macron has warned that "crowd power, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives" in parliament.

Macron's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne last week forced unpopular pension reform legislation through parliament without a vote, using the constitutional clause known as 49.3.

Nightly clashes with police

There have been nightly clashes with police in French cities in reaction to that decision.

Police arrested around 300 people within hours of the government surviving two no-confidence votes in the National Assembly over the pensions bill on Monday.

There have been 760 arrests in the French capital in the past six days.

Observers say street anger directed against President Macron personally is worse than against any president since Charles de Gaulle, bordering on hatred with some demonstrators burning his effigy and calling for his execution.

"Since the Yellow Vest protests, Emmanuel Macron has been the focus of huge amounts of resentment and hatred," said Anne Muxel, director of research at Sciences Po, an elite political science school.

A weekend opinion poll showed Macron's approval rating at 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2019.

Another day of national strikes and protests against the pension changes, in particular pushing back the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, is planned for Thursday. Rubbish continues to pile up in the streets of Paris due to work stoppages by refuse collectors.

The Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has called for 12,000 police officers to be on duty on Thursday, 5,000 for Paris alone. 

Blockades at oil refineries continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages. There were clashes Tuesday at Fos-sur-Mer outside Marseille as authorities sought to force refinery workers back to work.

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