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French govt. rejects unions’ demand to suspend, rethink pension bill; clashes erupt in protest rallies

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Riot police are seen with smoke rising in the background in Bordeaux, western France, on March 23, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

The French government has rejected a request by trade unions to rethink President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform bill that has sparked chaos in the country.

French government spokesman Olivier Veran turned down the idea on Tuesday, saying the cabinet is willing to discuss other policy changes, but not review the pension bill.

The announcement came hours after Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union, as well as other union leaders, urged Paris to suspend the bill, suggesting the use of outside mediators, as the government and unions remain far apart.

"We have proposed a way out ... and it's intolerable that we are being stonewalled again," Berger said.

The development comes as trade unions in France have called for fresh nationwide strikes amid continued anger over the government's unpopular pension reforms.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across France earlier in the day to protest against the government’s highly controversial plan.

Dubbed the "day of action" by French trade unions, Tuesday's protest is the tenth such mobilization since the industrial action started in mid-January against the law, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

As protesters staged generally peaceful marches across the country, violent clashes broke out in some areas, with security forces using indiscriminate force, including teargas canisters, to suppress protesters calling for Macron's ouster.

In the western city of Nantes, the boarded-up front of a BNP Paribas bank branch was set on fire. Also in western France, protesters blocked the Rennes ring road and set an abandoned car on fire. In the Normandy city of Rouen, authorities confirmed clashes had occurred.

Popular outrage over Macron imposing the bill without a parliamentary vote has sparked daily clashes between protesters and police in French cities over the past week.

Macron has said the legislation would come into force by the end of the year despite escalating tensions and calls for his ouster.

Trade unions have blamed the government for the "explosive situation" in the country and have asked workers to continue protesting against Macron's pension reform diktat.

Apart from recent protests, hundreds of thousands of French people have been peacefully marching against the pension reform legislation since January.

France's security forces came under fire this week for their heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the protests.

The current protests are the most serious challenge to Macron since the yellow vest revolt four years ago.

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