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As Marchers in France Fight Pension Reform, Shopkeepers Nod and Agree

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Angry protests over a plan to raise France’s retirement age pile uncertainty on small businesses, but most are siding with the demonstrators.

Maxime Clausier stood inside the barricaded entrance of his butcher shop in central Paris and surveyed the swelling crowd of protesters outside his door. He had closed early Tuesday amid the latest demonstrations in France against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62, and his business was taking a hit.

But Mr. Clausier said he would have given anything to be right out there in the crowd. Even at age 30, having worked nearly half his life as a butcher, he couldn’t stomach the idea of being required to work longer to finance what the government says may soon be an untenable pension system.

“I can’t afford to be out there for even five hours,” said Mr. Clausier, who helps run La Boucherie des Gobelins and pays what he said were high payroll taxes used to fund France’s social safety net. “But I’m with them in spirit, because what we are seeing is the unraveling of France’s social contract. We can’t let that happen.”

Tens of thousands of people marched past Mr. Clausier’s shop on the Avenue des Gobelins on Tuesday, following a snaking four-kilometer route that started at the Place d’Italie and coursed along the main arteries of Paris’s Left Bank, all the way to Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides.

In cities stretching from Lille in northern France to Marseille in the south, for the second time in two weeks, throngs took to the streets in a show of anger set off by Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul plans.

Mr. Macron, who made changes to the pension system a cornerstone of his re-election campaign last year, argues that he has a strong mandate and that France’s complex but generous state-backed retirement plan will run out of money if nothing is done. The only way to fix it, Mr. Macron says, is to make the French work longer.

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Demonstrators across France are angry about President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the legal retirement age to 64 from 62.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Opponents, including a united front of labor unions, say Mr. Macron is attacking a cherished right to retire and unfairly burdening blue-collar workers because of his refusal to increase taxes on the wealthy. Neither side has shown signs of backing down.

Near the front of the marchers, Eileen Nati positioned her wheeled food stand in the middle of the growing crowd, where hungry protesters paid 5 euros, about $5.40, for sizzling merguez sausage sandwiches. The family business — her husband, Mohammed, and father, Said, tended to two other stands across the street — is part of a satellite economy of food and pamphlet vendors who follow nearly every major protest movement that breaks out across France.

“We make decent money,” said Ms. Nati, 29, whose father started out with a tiny barbecue cart over 40 years ago, rising at 5 a.m., laboring over wood fires and crisscrossing the country in a truck in search of business.

The work allowed the family to get by, but it also took a toll on family life. “We want to be able to profit from life with our children and grandchildren,” Ms. Nati said. “So I support this movement. We pay taxes to fund the system, and to force us to work longer to benefit from what we’ve put in isn’t right.”

To the raucous Parisians parading along the Avenue des Gobelins, the pension overhaul was the latest sign that Mr. Macron was out of touch with people. They shouted into megaphones, chanted antigovernment slogans and railed against what many saw as a growing inequality divide between average workers and the superrich in France and around the world.

Many of the businesspeople watching the crowds from inside their shops agreed.

Arnaud Tourneboeuf watched the protests from the furniture boutique where he works. “Two hundred years after the French Revolution, it’s as if society has not become more equal,” he said.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

A few doors down from Mr. Clausier’s butcher shop, Arnaud Tourneboeuf, 59, sat quietly in the designer Scandinavian furniture boutique where he sells custom shelving units. Only a handful of customers had stopped in since the morning, but he wasn’t worried. People who could afford big-ticket items would come back another day.

Even so, his eyes darted to the ever-thickening crowd, where protesters wielded signs reading “Retirement before death” and caroused satirically to the French disco song “Born to Be Alive,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who is leading Mr. Macron’s reform drive.

Mr. Tourneboeuf acknowledged that France’s current retirement age was one of the lowest in Europe. “If Scandinavian countries, Germany, Spain and everyone else has raised it, it must mean something needs to be done,” he said. “Even so,” he added, “we are spending enormous sums on France’s defense budget” in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine. “There surely must be another way to find money for pensions.”

As the crowd got louder, Mr. Tourneboeuf grew somber. “What’s happening here is not merely a protest about the retirement age,” he said. “Everywhere we are seeing more and more evidence of inequality, tilting in favor the powerful. Two hundred years after the French Revolution, it’s as if society has not become more equal.”

Demonstrators met in cafes around the Place d’Italie before the protest.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Mr. Tourneboeuf also said Mr. Macron’s policies were a continuation of neoliberal economic prescriptions that had already contributed to inequality for decades. If France’s Yellow Vest movement was sparked by an attempt by Mr. Macron to raise gas taxes on people who could least afford it, the president’s latest gambit to raise the retirement age is igniting “an immaterial anger,” he said.

Such talk didn’t resonate with everyone. Farther along, where the avenue dipped to reveal the stunning profile in the distance of the Pantheon, Emmanuel Schoemann stood behind the counter of his empty video game shop and watched the crowds file by.

A nearly full-scale shutdown of Paris’s transit system, a strike in sympathy with the retirement-age protest, had kept his clientele away. “I’ve had only four customers since this morning,” he said.

Mr. Schoemann, 41, couldn’t understand why the thousands of people walking past his store were protesting. Despite France’s flaws, he said, it generally protects people of all stripes with a social safety net that would be envied in most other parts of the world.

The demonstration forced Emmanuel Schoemann to close his video game shop for half a day.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

The pension system is a prime example, he said, calling it one of the most protective in Europe. “The strikers have a hard time facing reality,” he said. “They should look at our neighbors and realize that France is actually pretty generous.”

But for others, the pension overhaul has come to symbolize a deeper problem afflicting the country. Standing outside a BNP Paribas bank whose windows were boarded up was a man dressed like Mr. Monopoly, sporting a black top hat and white silk scarf and chomping on a cigar.

The man, Hubert Labrousse, a retiree and a member of Attac, a French anti-globalization movement, was making a point. He stretched his arm toward a poster of Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury goods company, who recently surpassed Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest man.

“He belongs to the gang of profiteers,” Mr. Labrousse said. With a fortune estimated at over $200 billion by Forbes, Mr. Arnault was a main target of many protesters after LVMH last week reported record revenue of nearly €80 billion and net profit of over €14 billion, fueling a debate in French news media about the outsize wealth divide.

“Macron says we must not tax surplus profits or raise taxes on the 1 percent,” said Evelyne Dourille-Feer, 72, a retired economist working with Mr. Labrousse. “Meanwhile, the number of people living under the poverty line in France has grown, and the poorest people are growing really poor,” she said.

“Where is the social justice?” she asked.

Hubert Labrousse said the government should “tax the rich” to help fund France’s pension system, rather than raise the retirement age.Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.

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