The Republic Square in the heart of Paris, where all the major workers 'and students' demonstrations of the past hundred years began or ended. Marie-Lou Enfer, whose surname translated means "hell," hops across the square and shouts, "The social workers! We're here! Welcome!"
Marie-Lou is 18 years old, studies social work at a technical college in the Parisian suburb of Montrouge and comes from the southern French town of Montpellier. She has demonstrated there many times already. But today, for the first time on the road, it's all about the world, the nation, President Emmanuel Macron, and their own future.
"Macron got the wrong moment, I know he's not the bad guy," says the 18-year-old. She knew that France had one of the best social systems in Europe. "But we have to defend that, I'm not demonstrating here for my wages, I'm demonstrating for the preservation of our institutions, so that the homeless can still be looked after!"
Marie-Lou runs to her classmates painting cloth banners for the big demonstration that day: "Civil Service employees and private companies and students in social struggle!" they painted in black paint on red fabric. And: "International solidarity with Hong Kong!" So that no one gets the idea, the French would only think of themselves.
22 picturesStrike in France: Day of mass protests
The protests on this day are the "hour of truth for Macron," headlines the Paris newspaper Le Monde. December 5th is a magical day for the French unions, marking their last, historic strike success 24 years ago.
At that time, a general strike in the transport sector, which was mainly followed by train drivers, bus and truck drivers, ended all planned social reforms of the newly elected President Jacques Chirac. That was in 1995. Today a similar strike is supposed to prevent the pension reform of President Emmanuel Macron.
"The plight is everywhere, there's nothing left to discuss, the pension plan has to go," says Patrice Lardeux, 69, who wears the red colors of the CGT union on the Republic Square, which was still communist in 1995. (Read here a portrait of CGT chief Philippe Martinez).
CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / EPA-EFE / REX
CGT boss Martinez (center) at demonstration: Macron's opponent
Today, the CGT may only be the second largest union in France after the CFDT close to the government. But she is still the strongest fight. She has 500 files next to the 6000 police officers who have been controlling the streets of Paris since early morning.
Almost always, the demonstrations are peaceful, but in Paris and some other cities, there are occasional riots: Black-dressed hooded lighted a trailer and trash can and threw windowpanes, the police used tear gas. In Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon, there were occasional clashes of hoodlums with the security forces.
In Paris, the CGT folders have pasted pieces of paper with caricatures on the police red tape: they show a stretched old man with champagne glass in his hand, celebrated by his colleagues. One of them says to the bearer: "Of course a retirement party at 80 is not so funny anymore!" The prospect of having to work longer because of Macron's plans, many French find little edifying. (Read here an interview with an expert on the need for reform in the French pension system.)
So it's not about the revolution as it used to be on the Republic Square. It's about preserving what the predecessors have fought for. "You just have to make it clear that we still exist," says the bearded city employee, who runs a public booth with board games for children on the Republic Square.
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Actually, he is tired of the demonstrations. They often disturb the children at the weekend when playing. Recently, he had to watch as yellow-vamped protesters put a pile of stones on the field to throw at the police. So he quickly closed his booth. But today? "You would have to put a bunch of tomatoes to the children to throw," he says.
Does the city employee thus meet the mood in the country? If so, it would be bad for the president. According to polls, between 58 and 65 percent of the French support the mass protests. In 1995, it was the art of the strikers to preserve the solidarity of the public, despite all traffic blockades. So they held from December 5 to Christmas and won all the way.
The protest unites the political extremes
Can this be repeated? "All were set for the 5th of December, now we have reached the stormy waters, but all are still looking for an attitude," says social historian Danielle Tartakowsky. It distinguishes between successful social movements in France until 1997 and what came afterwards. "By 2018, none of the big social mobilizations paid off," says Tartakowsky. But then came the yellow vests one year ago. It was an improvised rebellion of the underprivileged, without unions. He has created for Tartakowsky "a new climate that has contributed to the new 5th of December".
The first numbers of the day are ambiguous. 55.6 percent of all railway workers go on strike, the government says, and 46.6 percent of all teachers. Is that a lot or a little? The Élysée Palace states that the president has "respect for those who peacefully express their opposition to his project". Macron wants to wait and see how the transport sector's "unlimited" strike will continue over the next few days.
It was also the first time that Rassemblement National, the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, called for a demonstration with the unions. And the leader of the French Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélonchon, has expressly welcomed this. "When we used to demonstrate in Montpellier, there were always some of the wrong people," says Marie-Lou in Paris. The anger against Macron's plans unites many camps in France.