French anger at Macron seeps into Bordeaux

The ancient wooden doors were decorated with ornate metal knockers and small roasting windows, so the guards could peek. Once an impressive part of the facade of Bordeaux's elegant City Hall, they've looked more like towering chunks of charcoal since they were torched last week, following protests against the French government's pension law.

“It makes me angry. This is our legacy,” said Catherine Debève, a retired accountant standing among a crowd drawn by anger and curiosity to the stone square downtown to inspect the damage. “The government should repeal the law. Anger grows.”

Traditionally, Bordeaux, in southwest France, was known for its surrounding vineyards, conservative politics and colonial wealth. It is a measure of the outrage fueled by the government's decision to impose a law that raised the retirement age to 64, from 62, that Bordeaux, too, has become a flashpoint of violent grudges.

University students had occupied their building, ending classes. A record number of protesters have charged through the cobbled streets declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The protest ended in fire and a cloud of tear gas, with a handful of agitators then setting fire to the antique door that led to the sprawling grounds of City Hall.

“Bordeaux isn't normally a protesting city,” said Mathieu Obry, a bus driver and union organizer, during another march through the city center on Tuesday – the 10th – over exploding firecrackers and resounding bull horns.

That so many have taken to the streets, said Obry, reveals “the government has gone too far.”

As in most of the rest of the country, Tuesday's protests weren't as big or violent as last week's. But it still pulls up a sizable number—80,000 by union count, 11,000 by prefecture—to show that anger at the government remains strong.

In many places, such as Bordeaux, students have now joined the ongoing demonstrations — historically, a bad omen for those in power.

“It's not just Paris that is mobilizing. It's here too, in ‘laprovin,'” or province, said Mélissa Dedieu, 21, after singing another protest song that read: “Macron is at war with us, and the police too, but we are determined….”

Shortly after Macron's government survived last week's vote of no confidence, students pushed their way into the doors of the University of Bordeaux's 140-year-old human sciences building and declared they were occupying it.

“We are entering an era of dictatorships,” said Maia Laffont, 23, a third-year psychology student, standing below a stone statue of the famous French scientist that had emerged from the facade of the Beaux-Arts building, now scrawled with anti-Macron graffiti.

Students have taken over all floors and many administrative offices, as well as its beautiful auditorium and courtyard, holding banner-making sessions, marshmallow roasts, and public gatherings. Despite their official battle with the president and his administration, many say they are also angry at the university administration for not taking an official stance on pension laws.

“They are not defending our long-term interests,” said Ms. Laffont, nervously watching three policemen walk by.

Students at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, on the outskirts of the city, have gone even further — occupying the entire campus. Usually packed with 18,000 students, the liberal arts university's campus feels like a scene from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The entrance to his building was barricaded with tables and chairs, and many of his white walls were inscribed with angry messages, including, “Long live the Fire.”

“We blocked schools to allow students to mobilize. Even if you don't have classes, with 35 hours a week for study and research, there's no time for protest,” explains Julia Chinarro, 27, stepping outside the student building which has been converted into a shared bedroom.

Their work is now two weeks old, but their numbers have ballooned after the government pushed through legislation. Complaints have widened from anger over the single law to the method of governing the government – and the Constitution that permits it – was heavily written.

“Our voices are not heard. Completely undemocratic,” explained Axel Méchain, 22, a theater student and recently recruited for the occupation. “If we're going to do anything about it, it's now.”

In France, the student movement has historically had the power to intimidate the government. University students fueled the months-long 1968 revolution that overturned the country's social norms and prompted the president to dissolve his government and call for new elections. In the face of massive student protests in 2006, the government revoked the recently legalized youth employment contracts.

“Students are much more difficult to send back to work,” explains Lionel Larré, president of the University of Bordeaux Montaigne. “They don't have much to lose. And there are lots of them.”

Mr. Larré has met regularly with the students who occupy his campus, and is generally supportive of their causes, though not their methods. From his point of view, the movement is growing.

“My fear is the movement is becoming more and more radical, and people believe they have nothing to lose,” he said.

From inside City Hall, Mayor Pierre Hurmic is also worried. Having passed through social and political stages, the crisis revealed something far more troubling – “the democratic rift between the government and the governed,” he said.

The burning of the City Hall doors seems to support that theory, symbolically. The exceptions are Mr Hurmic, the city's first left-wing mayor since 1947, who has been a vocal opponent of the pension bill and Mr Macron, whom he calls “the prince”.

“I call it home with everyone from Bordeaux. I see no connection between public housing and opposition to the pension bill,” he said.

He believed the fires were the work of opportunists, not aligned with the protests, who used street rage as a pretext to wreak havoc.

A police investigation into the fire is ongoing. To date, four men and one youth have been arrested. Three people were convicted of wearing face coverings, and carrying weapons including bicycle chains and sharpened PVC pipes – not for setting fire to a door. Trials of the other two are pending.

It is not clear whether the links to the protests, if exposed, will undermine the movement. In Paris, some protesters have abandoned regular union marches, finding them ineffective, in favor of “wild” night marches, which often result in violent confrontations with police.

In Bordeaux, many students say they don't support violence, but they understand the anger it can cause. “I'm not sure that violence is a good solution, but I don't see any other solution either,” said Raphaëlle Desplat, 19, a student at Sciences Po Bordeaux, who also faced the student blockade.

Some even claimed the charred City Hall door was a “symbol of resistance”.

“They gave the message – she's not going to implement the new law and we're going to do everything to make sure she doesn't,” said Ms. Lafont.

But for many people, repealing pension laws — or hold on for a whileas one national trade union leader recently suggested — is no longer enough. Their battle now is with the Constitution which offers so many powers to the presidency, and in particular with Mr Macron's government.

“Our victory will be the end of this government,” said Hélène Cerclé, 22, among a crowd of singing students led by a marching band at Tuesday's protest. A master's student, Ms. Cerclé is not worried that the protests will degenerate. “I'm most afraid that none of this will change anything,” he said.

As the parade passes behind St. André towering over the city, which shares the main square with City Hall, a battalion of police officers in riot gear came into view.

They provide a reminder: Ms. Cerclé would rather talk about injured protesters than damaged buildings. The site of the scorched door, with its baked peephole and heavy ancient knockers, evoked no emotion in him.

“It's just a door,” he said, and continued to march.

Tom Nouvian reporting contribution from Paris.