Three weeks into a refinery strike that has caused fuel shortages across the country, tens of thousands of protesters marched in Paris on Sunday, adding to a growing picture of defiance and anger about inflation.
The demonstration against the rising cost of living on Sunday was called by the left-wing political opposition and led by the head of the France Unbowed (LFI) party, Jean-Luc Melenchon.
Some protesters wore yellow florescent vests, the symbol of often violent anti-government protests in 2018 which shook the pro-business centrist government of President Emmanuel Macron.
Opponents of Macron are hoping to build on the momentum created by the refinery standoff which began at the end of September.
“We’re going to have a week the likes of which we don’t see very often,” Melenchon said Sunday while speaking on a truck in the middle of the crowd.
“Everything is coming together. We are starting it with this march, which is an immense success.”
Several French unions, but not all, have announced a national day of strikes on Tuesday that is expected to affect road transport, trains and the public sector.
Organizers claimed 140,000 people attended Sunday’s march against the rising cost of living and alleged government inaction against climate change.
Police had predicted around 30,000 people would attend, and will release their own estimate later.
The strikes and protests are being closely watched by the government which is aiming to push through a highly controversial change to the pensions system in the next few months.
Macron, who won re-election in April, has pledged to push back the retirement age from 62, with the reform scheduled before the end of the winter.
“I’m really worried,” one ruling party MP told AFP last week on condition of anonymity. “We need to find a route between the need for reforms and the fact that people are riled up and tired.”
Four of France’s seven refineries — all belonging to Paris-based energy group TotalEnergies — remained blocked on Sunday.
The French company announced on Friday that it had reached a pay deal with the two largest unions representing staff at its refineries, raising hopes of an end to the standoff.
But the hardline CGT union has refused to accept it, with its members continuing to maintain picket lines.
Budget Minister Gabriel Attal denounced the continuation of the strike on Sunday as “unacceptable”, while business lobby group Medef said “150 people” were “taking the country hostage.”
“Of course there’s a right to strike, but at some point the country needs to be able to work,” Attal told French media.
Staff at two other refineries owned by the US group Esso-ExxonMobil returned to work at the end of last week, but operations there will need at least a fortnight to return to normal, the company said.
Around a third of petrol stations across the country have supply problems, meaning drivers are often waiting hours to refuel.
Many companies have cut back on travel and deliveries, while even emergency service vehicles face shortages.
The huge profits made by energy groups due to record fuel prices have led to some sympathy for employees pushing for higher wages.
But one poll by the BVA polling group released Friday suggested that only 37 percent of people supported the stoppages.
Sunday’s protest march through Paris was called by Melenchon’s party and is backed by its coalition allies — the Greens, Socialists and Communists.
Recent Nobel literature laureate Annie Ernaux and another 60 figures from the arts and public life had also called for people to join the march in a joint letter.
A police source said there were fears that anarchist groups would be present, which could lead to clashes that regularly mar French protests.
“The organizer has been warned of these fears,” said the official.