More than 450 people were arrested and some 440 officers wounded amid clashes in Paris and elsewhere
France saw its largest protest so far against President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform on Thursday, with more than a million people taking to the streets across the country.
The gatherings started peacefully, but were marred by violence in Paris and several other cities, as police used batons, tear gas and water cannons to disperse rioters, who hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at officers, set up barricades, and vandalised public property.
The French Interior Ministry said 1.089 million people took part in the ninth nationwide rally against the government's plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. According to official data, attendance doubled compared to March 15, the previous day of protests.
The CGT confederation of trade unions claimed that the number of demonstrators on Thursday was far higher, totalling 3.5 million.
Violence and arrests
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Friday morning that 457 people were arrested across the country, most of them in Paris, where 903 fires were lit on the streets. The scuffles saw 441 police officers injured, he said.
There were reportedly dozens of wounded among the demonstrators, including a woman, who lost a thumb in the town of Rouen in Normandy.
In his comments late on Thursday, Darmanin said the damage caused by the riots was more significant than on previous days. He singled out incidents in Bordeaux, where the entrance to the city hall was set on fire, and Lorient, where a police station was targeted.
The minister blamed the chaos on some 1,500 "thugs, often from the far left, who want to bring down the state and kill police officers." Those people are already known to law enforcement, he added.
However, the deputy secretary general of the CFDT union, Marylise Leon, insisted that the "responsibility for this explosive situation lies not with the unions, but with the government." The unrest is a result of "the falsehoods expressed by the president and his incomprehensible stubbornness," she said.
When is the next protest?
The unions have called for the next - tenth - day of nationwide strikes and rallies against the pension reform to be held on Tuesday, March 28. The development could potentially distrupt a planned visit by Britain's King Charles III, who is scheduled to travel to Bordeaux by train on that day.
Speaking about future protests, which have been building momentum since January, Leon claimed that "the powerful social rejection of this project is legitimate and its expression must continue."
Thursday's huge turnout follows a decision by Macron's government earlier this week to use executive privilege to pass the pension reform bill without a parliamentary vote.
Despite fervent opposition and calls to resign, the president is insisting on raising the retirement age to 64 by the end of the year. He argues that failure to do so will cause the entire French pension system to collapse.
Macron, whose ratings have slumped to below 30% since the onset of the crisis, said on Wednesday that he would always choose the future of the nation over short-term opinion polls, pledging: "If it is necessary to accept unpopularity today, I will accept it."
However, trade unions insist that the reform is "unfair" and mainly harms low-skilled workers with physically draining jobs and women with interrupted careers. One of attendees at Thursday's rally claimed Macron's plan was "a death sentence" for him.