spasms of violence and wild protests jolt paris

Opponents of pension overhaul, mostly young people, hold nightly “wild protests,” marked by vandalism, saying it is the only way to make their voices heard.

As an enormous march against an unpopular pension overhaul was winding down in Paris, small groups of young protesters began planning their next move as night fell.

“Let’s go to the Bastille,” a man in his 20s told his friends. Another, checking social media on his phone, said, “It looks like Châtelet is the meeting point,” referring to a different section of the capital. A few minutes later, the groups slipped out of the square.

And so began a “wild protest,” as the participants call such activities, in which groups of a few dozen young men and women, some clad in black and masked, roam the streets, knocking over city bikes and scooters, and setting fires while playing cat-and-mouse with the police. “Paris, rise up!” they chanted.

Wild protests have become a fixture of Parisian nightlife after the French government rammed through a pension bill last week raising the retirement age to 64, from 62, without a vote in the lower house of Parliament.

The wild protests are part of a larger trend that has seen previously peaceful demonstrations growing increasingly menacing as the government refuses to back down on the pension overhaul. On Thursday, nearly 1,000 fires were lit by protesters, about 440 police officers and firefighters were injured and about the same number of demonstrators were arrested throughout France, Gérald Darmanin, the French interior minister, said.

A demonstration in Paris on Thursday. Anger about the changes to retirement has prompted rallies and marches across France.
Protesters set nearly 1,000 street fires in France on Thursday, according to the interior minister.

Support for the protesters is not universal. In a narrow street, a woman threw a bucket of water from her window at demonstrators who were setting fire to uncollected trash. Laurent Berger, the leader of France’s biggest union, the C.F.D.T., condemned the violence, saying that it risked undermining the fight against the pension overhaul.

But for now, at least, the protesters are undeterred. “We’ve realized that staying within the boundaries of the law doesn’t work,” said Maximilien Moreau, a 22-year-old student who has joined several wild protests, citing the numerous union-organized marches that have so far failed to make the government budge. “If we want things to really change, we must up the ante,” he added.

On Thursday night, a motley group of several dozen young protesters set off from the Place de l’Opéra in Paris. After about half a mile walking down the Boulevard des Italiens, they dived into the capital’s cobbled streets. In no time, they were throwing piles of trash left uncollected by protesting workers into the middle of the street, blocking traffic.

Garbage cans, scaffolding, construction fences, along with the bikes and scooters — virtually everything within reach — was knocked down. Each clang of a construction fence hitting the ground drew cheers.

“It just feels good to vent your anger,” said Alexandra Joly, 33, who was marching with the group, chanting antigovernment and anti-police slogans.

Although she did not participate in the vandalism, Ms. Joly nonetheless defended it. She said that it was the last option to make their demands heard by the French government, after it had used a constitutional maneuver to pass the pension bill.

Several protesters said it was the frustration provoked by that rarely used measure that had driven them to such acts. They pointed to the success of the Yellow Vest movement four years ago, which was marked by heavy street violence and which eventually forced the government to abandon a fuel tax increase, as evidence that such aggressiveness can pay off.

A bottle recycling bank being overturned by demonstrators in Paris. Wild protests have become a fixture of Parisian nightlife after the French government rammed the pension bill through Parliament.
Gendarmes in Paris on Thursday. Participants in so-called wild protests often engage in a cat-and-mouse game with the police.

“We have to intensify the struggle,” Ms. Joly said. “Besides, what we’re doing is less violent than the social violence of this reform.”

Moving across Paris’s right bank, the protesters passed the Louvre and made their way to the fancy streets of the Marais. People having cocktails on cafe terraces looked on in amazement.

“Don’t look at us! Join us!” the protesters chanted, as if to awaken the old beating heart of revolutionary Paris.

Emboldened by the crowd, a man in his 60s wearing a tweed jacket briefly joined the group and kicked over a trash can, to the acclaim of the young people surrounding him.

A patrol near a smashed display at a bus stop.
Police officers chasing down protesters and making arrests.

Some protesters were looking for rallying points on social networks, but their route owed mostly to chance. After about an hour of wandering, they stumbled upon another wild protest. Amid the cheering, a man lit a red smoke bomb and headed east, and the crowd followed suit.

“It’s a bit anarchical,” said Camille Brume, 27, who was busy pulling city bikes and scooters out of their parking lots and dumping them on the street. “It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen because we ourselves don’t know what the next step is.”

One constant, however, has been the jousting with the police.

As the group approached the Louvre, participants were ambushed by phalanxes of armor-clad riot officers who had hidden near the colonnades of the nearby Comédie Française. A dozen protesters were pinned down and arrested while the rest managed to slip through traffic and escape.

Soon, the roar of a motorized police squad could be heard in the distance. “The BRAV!” people shouted as they scurried away, using the acronym of a police brigade that the protesters fear for its record of harsh arrests.

“The police are harassing us,” said Maëlle Senly, 23, who said that she had joined several wild protests over the past week. Before the police motorcycles swept in, she was discussing with a friend what to do and whom to call in case of an arrest.

Extinguishing a fire near the Palais Garnier. “It’s a bit anarchical,” one protester said. “It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen because we ourselves don’t know what the next step is.”

Videos of officers beating protesters have emerged on social media in recent days, igniting a debate about police violence. On Friday, the French newspaper Le Monde published excerpts from what it said was an audio recording it had authenticated in which BRAV police officers are heard slapping a man they arrested this week and threatening to break his legs.

Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, has voiced his support for the police, noting that several nights of operations had strained them. But he said on Friday morning that 11 investigations into episodes of police misconduct had been opened over the past week.

At the wild protest on Thursday, the group rallied at the Place de la Bastille, in eastern Paris, a landmark of the French Revolution, chanting: “We decapitated Louis XVI. We will do it again, Macron.” But the square was already largely cordoned off by police trucks with flashing blue lights.

Every few minutes, volleys of tear gas canisters rained down on the protesters, sometimes in retaliation for stone-throwing against the police but more often to disperse the crowd. About 50 people were arrested at lightning speed by a police squad that suddenly rushed them. They seemed unfazed, and some even smiled.

“Anger is growing,” Ms. Senly said. “As long as the government does not move, it will get worse.”

City bikes and scooters, as well as scaffolding, garbage cans, construction fences and pretty much anything else that can be knocked over, are common targets of the wild protests.

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