Officers made 111 arrests in Paris, according to a police statement sent to reporters by WhatsApp, and 291 arrests nationally, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told reporters.
In March, President Emmanuel Macron — fearing a loss in the lower house of Parliament, where he no longer has a majority — pushed through the landmark legislation raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 using a constitutional maneuver that enraged unions.
With the unions united for the May Day protest — for only the third time since 1945 — the turnout had been expected to be large. The last time unions coordinated efforts to hit the streets in full force, in 2009, there were 1.2 million protesters nationwide. Nearly 300 rallies had been planned for Monday across the country, with the main focus in Paris.
France’s Interior Ministry reported that 782,000 demonstrators were in the streets Monday. The General Confederation of Labour, one of France’s largest labor unions, said about 2.3 million people had participated.
Since the pension measure was presented, there have been 12 days of protests and strikes across France, with violence often breaking out after sunset in the heart of many cities, including Paris, where demonstrators burned dumpsters holding trash that had piled up for days after a strike by garbage collectors.
With the Constitutional Court approving the legislation in mid-April, there is little the protesters can do, however, to stop its implementation. Macron’s lack of a parliamentary majority and his recourse to administrative means to pass laws has angered citizens who see his approach as anti-democratic.
The government has invited the unions to negotiate over further changes to social benefits that Macron has planned, but so far they have refused.
Although the vast majority of demonstrators have been peaceful, authorities had feared violent clashes on Monday. Before the march in Paris, police set up checkpoints and released photos of weapons they had confiscated from protesters, including knives and fireworks.
Demonstrators in the capital set buildings and vehicles ablaze and destroyed businesses and bus stops.
According to statements put out by Paris police, several law enforcement officers were injured, 10 of whom were sent to hospitals, and officers prevented a fire from spreading after people set two fuel cans alight in front of a construction site.
Thomas Ballouhey, an artist who joined Monday’s demonstration near the Triumph of the Republic statue, said it felt “much more tense than usual.” He saw “more people ready to fight,” more medics and “much, much more police,” which he said increased stress levels.
“The police were more tense too. You could feel they were ready to go any time. That’s why we left earlier than we would like,” said Hugo Besikian, a photographer who protested around the same area.
While the vast majority of demonstrations were peaceful, Darmanin tweeted, “the forces of law and order were faced with extremely violent thugs who had come with one objective: to kill cops and attack the property of others.”
In the run-up to Monday’s demonstrations, several rights groups had accused police of excessive use of force and disproportionate use of tear gas in previous demonstrations, especially the BRAV-M anti-riot unit.
Several regions authorized the use of drones by law enforcement agencies to monitor the May Day parades, including Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre and Tours, despite efforts to fight the measures in court. The national police tweeted Monday that drone use in Lyon led officers to arrest 21 demonstrators.
“Given the damage, clashes with internal security forces and sabotage of video protection cameras found during some recent national days of inter-union protest, the prefect of the Gironde decided to strengthen the security of the course to ensure the best possible conduct of this important demonstration,” the prefecture said in a statement.
Petit reported from Paris and Westfall reported from Washington. Beatriz Rios in Brussels contributed to this report.