ANTI-PENSION reform protesters in France stormed the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics in a posh north Paris neighbourhood last Tuesday, leading to pitched battles with police.
While the police managed to evict them from the building with brutal force, it gave rise to fears that athletes and fans might be caught up in violence during next year’s Paris Olympics.
‘Several dozen CGT union militants got into the building for a few minutes to deploy banners against pension reform. There was no violence and no damage,’ a Games spokesperson told the media, after television images were broadcast showing protesters occupying the building in Aubervilliers.
The move was the latest flashpoint in the lengthy standoff between members of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) trade union and French President Emmanuel Macron over the controversial pension reform bill which increases the retirement age from 62 to 64 years old.
Anti-government demonstrations first erupted in France on January 19, 2023, after the pensions ‘reform’ bill was proposed by the Macron government, with a series of industrial actions causing widespread disruption, including garbage piling up in the streets and public transport cancellations.
Ever since, almost every week, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in Paris and other major French cities, clashing with the French police. At the height of these anti-government protests earlier this year, more than a million people took part in the rallies.
Several organisations, including human rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders and France’s Human Rights League, have condemned the crackdown on protesters, citizens and journalists.
Rolling strikes and anti-government protests across the country have often descended into violence on the fringes, with clashes intensifying since April.
The civil unrest in France comes as the country is preparing to host next year’s summer Olympics. The Olympic Flame will be lit at Olympia in Greece on April 16 next year before it goes to France.
Human rights activists and sports observers say they fear major disruptions and even violence will threaten the event, which is set to take place between July 26 and August 11, 2024.
‘Experts’ are claiming the storming of the Olympic headquarters in the French capital by angry protesters last Tuesday demonstrates the sensitivity of the issue and how unsafe Paris is as a host city.
The slogan of ‘No withdrawal, No Olympics’, or #pasderetraitpasdeJO, has been reverberating on social media in recent weeks, reflecting the popular mood and public anger against the Macron government’s controversial pension law.
Danielle Simonnet, a member of France’s National Assembly, was quoted as saying that the new law fast-tracked by Macron signals an ‘authoritarian drift’ under his government.
He hastened to add that linking the pension reform law and the Paris 2024 Olympics points to ‘a deep political crisis marking a strong aspiration for the Sixth Republic so that the president stops behaving like a monarch against the people.
‘Connecting the rejection of the Olympics with the rejection of the pension law marks the level of popular awareness of the same logic that underlies them: a policy for the profits of a handful, at the expense of the overwhelming majority.’
Last month, there were reports about power outages at several Olympic venues in France, including the Olympic Village and Stade de France stadium to protest against Macron’s authoritarianism.
French anti-Olympics activist Natsuko Sasaki was quoted as saying that people use the #pasderetraitpasdeJO ‘because they think sabotaging the Games is a good idea to make Emmanuel Macron lose face.
‘People who use the hashtag may not know that some dedicated anti-Olympics activists, like myself, have been working on this for years,’ Sasaki said.
‘Many of them may not know workers’ gardens were destroyed for an Olympic training pool, immigrant workers lost their homes for the sake of the Olympic Village, a new onramp for the Games runs directly alongside a school in Saint-Denis Pleyel, a public park was privatised for the media village.
‘They may not know that France is the first European country to allow AI video surveillance for the Games.’
Observers believe that heightened security measures by the French government won’t be enough for the millions of people arriving in Paris next summer from getting caught in the middle of the turmoil.
Olympics organising committee president in Paris, Tony Estanguet, admitted that it would be a ‘challenge (for France) to organise a ceremony under these conditions.’
In order to manage the situation, French police have beefed up security measures.
Figuring out the extent of disruption and disorder that French forces may encounter in the face of protests at Olympic venues, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanian warned of ‘enormous public order problems’.
Civil liberty rights activists have also raised the alarm that Olympic security measures risk eroding freedoms in Paris. Critics have raised privacy concerns about video surveillance technology that will be used along with artificial intelligence software to flag potential security risks such as crowd surges.
‘I think President Macron wants to mark his presidency. But the risk is there,’ Bertrand Cavallier, the former commander of France’s national gendarmerie police training centre, told the press, referring to the risk of protests and crackdowns amid the Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, dozens of French cities have been protesting against the Paris Olympic Games sponsor Airbnb, arguing that by forcing renters to stay in the the lucrative short-term lets the company only benefits the owners and landlords.
‘This is destruction, entire neighbourhoods are being emptied,’ Franck Rolland, a Saint-Malo activist who leads the protest group, said during a news conference earlier this week.
Meanwhile, several Western countries, led by the United States, last year announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, accusing China of alleged human rights violations.
Officials from the US, UK, Canada and some other countries did not attend the Beijing Olympics events in February 2022, despite warnings from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not to politicise it.
The US said at the time that the boycott was because of China’s alleged ‘human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang’. British MP Ian Duncan Smith claimed the Chinese government commits ‘human rights abuses against the Uyghur in Tibet and sends near-daily military incursions into Taiwan’s airspace’.
The same governments are now silent over the widespread protests in France and brutal police crackdown against French protesters in Paris and other major French cities, say rights activists.
‘The double standards are glaring. When it comes to Paris, it is business as usual, but when Beijing was hosting the Olympics, they were all up in arms, making outlandish accusations,’ Martin Clarke, a Sydney-based human rights activist, said.
Rights activists say the French government is using the Olympic Games to target poor and homeless people, moving them out of the city to make room in budget hotels for foreign tourists.
France’s sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra warned against making the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris a ‘scapegoat’ for people’s anger and frustration over social problems.
‘We shouldn’t make the Olympics the scapegoat for all our frustrations. It’s important not to distort the facts and blame the Olympic Games for all our social problems’ she said.
But Paris, fans and experts say, cannot be an ideal host for the greatest sports carnival amid raging anti-government protests and mounting anger over the way poor people are being treated.