“All the way to repeal!” That’s one of the many rallying cries being shouted across France since March 16, when President Emmanuel Macron resorted to Article 49, Section 3, of the French Constitution to force an increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The so-called “49.3” maneuver allowed Macron’s government to plow through a parliamentary logjam, bypassing a direct vote in the National Assembly on his unpopular pension reform. But it’s done little to solve the root cause of the president’s growing political isolation: The French public remains massively opposed to Macron’s retirement plan. According to most polls, two in three French citizens reject Macron’s bill, designed to save the government €17 billion by withholding two years of payments to workers at the end of their careers. One January study, conducted by the centrist Montaigne Institute, claimed that as little as 7 percent of the working-age population is in favor of the government’s plan, which shields employers and wealthy earners from increased payroll taxes.
The movement in opposition to the reform seemed to be losing steam by mid-March, but Macron’s strong-arming of parliament has brought the French back into the streets. On March 23, the first day of national strikes since the use of the 49.3, the demonstrations were among the largest since the reform was first introduced in January. The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) union estimates that as many as 800,000 people marched in Paris alone. That figure may well be exaggerated, but it suggests something of the scale of the crowds that crossed the capital from Bastille to the Opera Garnier, with public anger boiling over in open clashes with riot police and numerous acts of sabotage. A new national strike day is scheduled for tomorrow, March 28.
Macron, it seems, has overplayed his hand. He has traded in parliamentary negotiation for direct confrontation—and no longer has a 49.3 in his pocket to whisk problems away. Instead, he’s leaning on one of the old crutches developed throughout his six years in office: outright police repression, aided and abetted by a pliant justice system.
According to Le Monde’s morning tally on March 22, nearly 800 people had been arrested in Paris over the preceding six nights of protests. That number is now approaching 1,000 in Paris alone—a weekly rate of arrests on par with the pace of Macron’s nationwide clampdown on the Yellow Vest movement over the winter of 2018–19.
These numbers are only the tip of the problem with France’s policing model. Put plainly, France’s police has developed a web of tactics designed to dissuade people from exercising the right to protest. And these heavy-handed tactics aren’t aimed only at the so-called casseurs (“vandals”), the antifa activists that have become the bête noire for police union spokesmen and media pundits.
On March 23, 5,000 officers were deployed in the capital, with another 7,000 across the country to manage the flows of protesters. But the line between what the French like to call maintien de l’ordre and outright provocation and harassment is becoming increasingly blurry. Riot police officers systematically resort to kettling protesters in tight webs of shields—a practice officially condemned by the State Council in June 2021 before being revived in new policing protocols published by the Interior Ministry later that year.
The wanton use of tear gas has turned a tool ostensibly designed for the dispersal of crowds into an offensive weapon used in close quarters against protesters unable to leave the scene. The now-infamous Brigades de répression des actions violentes motorisées (BRAV-M)—mobile squadrons that mount and dismount from motorcycles—serve as the police version of cavalry troops, encircling protesters from the flanks or applying pressure with direct charges. Each protest seems to come with its own stories of individuals maimed by rubber bullets or sting ball grenades.
“We’ve seen this before,” says Fabien Goa, a Paris-based researcher with Amnesty International, one of the many organizations that have warned France over its aggressive policing model. “They seem to know that they can more or less get away with it.”
“There’s a political decision being made. The government wants to snuff out these protests,” says Chloé Guilhem, an activist with the environmental justice group Alternatiba Paris. “The use of the 49.3 is a denial of democracy, and it’s shocking to see it used to force such a controversial reform. But with the police clampdown, that makes three scandals.”
Guilhem was one of the 292 people arrested in Paris on March 16 during the first night of protests following the announcement of the 49.3. Kettled in a side street near Place de la Concorde, she was taken into custody after being picked out to have her identity checked.
“There was one guy fumbling through an enormous wad of papers to figure out what offense they could say we committed,” Guilhem said. “It was ridiculous.”
Transferred to an overflow detention center, Guilhem was notified early the next morning that she was officially a suspect. She recalled the surreal scene of her interrogation by an investigating officer, who gained access to Guilhem’s mobile phone and began scrolling through her message logs, social media pages, and photo and video libraries.
“She tried to piece together a story of how I was some sort of serial delinquent, although I had done things that were entirely legal,” Guilhem says of her interrogation. “The cherry on top was when she came across a video I had taken at the protest where you can hear people chanting, ‘Down with the State, cops and fascists!’”
Guilhem is convinced that her argument with the officer over that video is what led to her being officially charged with “organizing an illegal protest” and “participating in an assembly with the intention to commit violence or degrade property.” Ultimately, the charges were dropped, and Guilhem was released with a warning.
Guilhem’s story is relatively rare among protesters taken into custody, in the sense that she did face formal charges—however trumped-up and short-lived. Most detained protesters are released without ever being charged.
“That’s a sign that there are arbitrary arrests, and arbitrary measures of detention being taken against people with the goal of intimidating or preventing them from protesting,” says Raphaël Kempf, a criminal defense attorney in Paris and author of the 2022 book Violences Judiciaires.
The scale of the abuses being made possible when the French state encounters a period of social tension is perhaps best expressed in an internal memo from the Paris prosecutor’s office, leaked in January 2019—at the height of the Yellow Vest movement. Rémy Heitz, chief Paris prosecutor at the time, advised his inferiors to not release protesters arrested spuriously in the lead-up to the weekend Yellow Vest rallies until later “Saturday evening or Sunday morning in order to prevent the individuals from rejoining the ranks of troublemakers.”
The return of arbitrary arrests and detentions suggests that little has changed. In a March 18 memo to public prosecutors on “the judicial treatment of offenses committed during demonstrations,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti was at least more diplomatic than Heitz: “You will be sure to apply a systematic and rapid penal response to cases carried out in the current context.”