The ancient wooden doors are decorated with an ornate metal knocker and a small window with grilles for guards to peek through. Once an imposing part of the elegant facade of Bordeaux’s town hall, they look more like towering pieces of charcoal since they were set ablaze last week, following a protest against the French government’s pension law.
“It makes me angry. This is our heritage,” said Catherine Debève, a retired accountant who stood among the crowd drawn by outrage and curiosity to the stone square in the center of town to survey the damage. must repeal her law. The anger is growing.”
Historically, Bordeaux, in southwestern France, has been known for its surrounding vineyards, conservative politics and colonial wealth. It is a measure of the anger sparked by the government’s decision to pass a law raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 that Bordeaux, too, has become a violent focal point of rancor.
University students have occupied their buildings, putting an end to classes. A record number of protesters have stormed through the stone streets World Heritage by Unesco. Protests have ended in fires and clouds of tear gas, with a handful of agitators later setting fire to the antique doors leading to the wide courtyard of City Hall.
“Bordeaux is not normally a protesting city,” said Mathieu Obry, a bus driver and union organizer, during yet another march through the center of the city on Tuesday – the 10th – over exploding fireworks and echoing bull horns.
That so many had taken to the streets, Mr Obry said, revealed that “the government has gone too far”.
As in much of the rest of the country, Tuesday’s protest was not that large or violent like last week’s. But it still drew enough numbers — 80,000 according to the unions, 11,000 according to the prefecture — to indicate that anti-government outrage remains strong.
In many places, such as Bordeaux, students have now joined the demonstrations – historically an ominous sign for those in power.
“It is not only Paris that has mobilized. It’s here too, in “la province,” or the provinces, said Mélissa Dedieu, 21, after singing along to another rendition of a protest song that read: “Macron went to war with us, and so did his police, but we remain determined….”
Shortly after Mr Macron’s government introduced a motion of distrust last week, students broke into the doors of the University of Bordeaux’s 140-year-old humanities building and declared they were occupying it.
“We are entering the era of dictatorship,” said Maia Laffont, 23, a third-year psychology student, standing under stone busts of notable French scientists rising from the facade of the Beaux-Arts building, now defaced with anti-Macron graffiti .
Students have taken over all the floors and many of the administrative offices, as well as the auditorium and pretty courtyard, where they make banners, roast marshmallows, and hold general meetings. While their battle is officially with the president and his administration, many said they are also angry with the university administration for not taking an official stance against the pension bill.
“They have not defended our long-term interests,” Ms Laffont said nervously to a trio of passing police officers.
The students of the Bordeaux Montaigne University, on the outskirts of the city, have gone even further: they occupy the entire campus. Normally with 18,000 students, the liberal arts college campus feels like a scene from an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The entrances to the buildings are barricaded with tables and chairs, and many of the white walls are scratched with angry messages, including a poignant “Long live the fire”.
“We blocked the school to allow the students to mobilize. Even if you don’t have classes, with 35 hours a week of studying and research, there’s no time to protest’, explains Julia Chinarro (27) as she leaves the student building that has been transformed into a communal bedroom.
Their occupation is now two weeks old, but their numbers increased after the government pushed through the law. The grievances have broadened from anger at the one law to the way the government rules — and the constitution that allows it — written big.
“Our voices are not being listened to. It’s totally undemocratic,” explains Axel Méchain, 22, a theater student recently recruited into the occupation. “If we’re going to do something about that, it’s now.”
In France, student movements have traditionally had the power to frighten governments. University students fueled the months-long revolution of 1968 that upended the country’s social norms and prompted the president to dissolve his government and call new elections. Facing major student protests in 2006, the government withdrew its recently approved youth employment contract.
“It is much more difficult to get students back to work,” explains Lionel Larré, the president of Bordeaux Montaigne University. “They don’t have much to lose. And they are numerous.”
Mr. Larré has met regularly with the students occupying his campus, and generally supports their cause, but not their method. From his point of view, the movement is growing.
“My fear is that the movement will become increasingly radicaland people think they have nothing to lose,” he said.
Mayor Pierre Hurmic is also concerned from the town hall. Having passed through a social and political stage, the crisis has revealed something far more disturbing: “a democratic rift between the government and the governed,” he said.
The burning of the doors of the town hall seems to symbolically support that theory. Except that Mr. Hurmic, the city’s first left-wing mayor since 1947, is an outspoken opponent of the pension bill and Mr. Macron, whom he calls “the prince.”
“I call this the common home of all Bordeaux people. I don’t see the connection between the common house and the opposition to the pension law,” he said.
He believes the blaze was the work of opportunists, unrelated to the protest, who used the street anger as a pretext to wreak havoc.
The police investigation into the fire is still ongoing. To date, four men and a youth have been arrested. Three were convicted of wearing face coverings and carrying weapons, including a bicycle chain and a sharp PVC pipe – not for setting fire to the door. The trials of the other two are pending.
It is not clear that a connection to the protests, if one is revealed, would be detrimental to the movement. In Paris, some protesters have abandoned regular union marches, deeming them ineffective, and have begun “wild” night marches, which often result in violent confrontations with police.
In Bordeaux, many students said they were not in favor of violence, but they understood the anger it could cause. “I’m not sure if violence is a good solution, but I don’t see any other solution either,” says Raphaëlle Desplat, 19, a student at Sciences Po Bordeaux, who has also faced student blockades.
Some even claimed that the charred doors of City Hall were a “symbol of resistance.”
“They’re passing on the message – he won’t implement the new law and we’ll do everything we can to make sure he doesn’t,” Ms Laffont said.
But for many, the repeal of the pension law — or put a stop to it temporarilyas a national union leader recently suggested – is no longer enough. Their battle is now with a constitution that gives so much power to the presidency, and with Mr. Macron’s rule in particular.
“Our victory will mean the end of this government,” said 22-year-old Hélène Cerclé, amid a crowd of singing students led by a marching band during Tuesday’s protest. Ms. Cerclé, a master’s student, is not concerned that the protests will degenerate. “I am especially afraid that none of this will change anything,” she said.
As the march passed behind the city’s towering St. André Cathedral, which shares a square with City Hall, a battalion of police in riot gear came into view.
They offered a reminder: Ms. Cerclé would rather talk about injured protesters than about damaged buildings. The place of the charred doors, with the grille of the peephole and the old heavy knocker, did not arouse any emotion in her.
“It’s just doors,” she said, and continued walking.
Tom Nouvian contributed reporting from Paris.