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What's next for French protesters

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And now to France, which, for months, was gripped by protests against a measure to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. Last month, that measure became law, and President Emmanuel Macron seems to have moved on. But have the protesters? NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This month, Macron invited the CEOs of 200 multinational companies to a Choose France investment summit at the Palace of Versailles. An interviewer asked him whether it was hard to attract investors with scenes of protests and violence playing out on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "For the fourth year, France is the most attractive country in Europe for foreign investment," replied Macron, "a record 13 billion euros. I told Elon Musk, sure, you may have seen some violence, but that's not France. Those are extremists. The protests are peaceful and the strikes minimal."

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Protesters marched on the palace that day, setting off large fireworks.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)

BEARDSLEY: They also carried torches, just like the peasants who marched on Versailles in 1789 to overthrow the king.

MATTHIEU BOLLE-RADDAT: This president, who refused to meet the trade unions during our fight against the pension bill - now, he meet a lot of big capitalists here in the Palace of Versailles, the symbol of the absolute power of the monarchy.

BEARDSLEY: That's Matthieu Bolle-Reddat, head of the train drivers' union. Macron promised the CEOs millions in tax breaks for investing in France. Bolle-Reddat says it's not Macron's money to give away.

BOLLE-REDDAT: We, the workers - we create this money. And they give this money to the bosses, and he said there is...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS EXPLODING)

BOLLE-REDDAT: ...No money anymore for the working class for our pension system. So we are here to claim - give me my money back.

BEARDSLEY: Riot police kept their demands from reaching the ears of Macron and his guests.

(SOUNDBITE OF POT BEING BANGED ON)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: But citizens have been dogging Macron since the law passed last month, banging pots and pans wherever he goes. And a million French turned out on May Day. Many were angry not just at the pension reform, but at the undemocratic manner in which Macron rammed it through Parliament using a procedural measure and bypassing a vote he was likely to lose.

Adrian Arias was at the May Day protest, carrying a sign that likened Macron to Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator deposed at the end of the Cold War.

ADRIAN ARIAS: It's not just the reform. No, it's about democracy. It's clear for most of French people that there's a really big problem with the same authoritarianism.

BEARDSLEY: Regardless, turnout at protests is dwindling, says Corinne Mellul, a political science professor at Sciences Po University. She believes Macron has moved on.

CORRINE MELLUL: Frankly, he's not wrong. I think he made a gamble - that it'll die down if you keep not addressing it. And he's winning the gamble because we're not talking about general strike days anymore. We're not talking about huge, disruptive protests with tires on fire and all of that. That's over. That's behind us. I don't think it's going to happen again.

BEARDSLEY: Unions have called another nationwide protest early next month, hoping to push Parliament to rescind the retirement law and force it to a vote. Mellul says Macron no longer has his absolute majority, but he believes he can work around Parliament.

MELLUL: The message is, I don't care. You think I'm going to be stuck for the remainder of my term? I have four more years to go, and you think I'm going to just be a lame duck and do nothing? And no, I have the power of presidential decree, and that's what I can do.

BEARDSLEY: Macron has never been so unpopular, adds Mellul. The retirement reform crisis has reinforced the perception that he is aloof, arrogant and detached from reality, just like the French kings in Versailles.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Versailles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.