French police fire tear gas at strikers challenging Macron reform

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Marine Pennetier

PARIS (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in the center of Paris on Thursday and public transport ground to a near halt in one of the biggest strikes in France for decades, aimed at forcing President Emmanuel Macron to ditch a planned reform of pensions.

The strike pits Macron, a 41-year-old former investment banker who came to power in 2017 on a promise to open up France’s highly regulated economy, against powerful trade unions who say he is set on dismantling worker protections.

The outcome depends on who blinks first – the unions who risk losing public support if the disruption goes on for too long, or the government which fears voters could side with the unions and blame officials for the standoff.

“People can work around it today and tomorrow, but next week people may get annoyed,” said 56-year-old cafe owner Isabelle Guibal.

Rail workers voted to extend their strike through Friday, while labor unions at the Paris bus and metro operator RATP said their walkout would continue until Monday.

Trade unions achieved their initial objective on Thursday, as workers at transport enterprises, schools and hospitals across France joined the strike. In Paris, commuters had to dust off old bicycles, rely on car pooling apps, or just stay at home. The Eiffel Tower had to close to visitors.

On Thursday afternoon, tens of thousands of union members marched through the center of the capital in a show of force.

Trouble erupted away from the main protest when people in masks and dressed in black ransacked a bus stop near the Place de la Republique, ripped up street furniture, smashed shop windows and threw fireworks at police.

Police in riot gear responded by firing tear gas, Reuters witnesses said. Nearby, police used truncheons to defend themselves from black-clad protesters who rushed at them. Prosecutors said, in all, 57 people were detained.

Macron wants to simplify France’s unwieldy pension system, which comprises more than 40 different plans, many with different retirement ages and benefits. Rail workers, mariners and Paris Opera House ballet dancers can retire up to a decade earlier than the average worker.

Macron says the system is unfair and too costly. He wants a single, points-based system under which for each euro contributed, every pensioner has equal rights.

PRESIDENT’S SWAGGER

Macron has already survived one major challenge to his rule, from the grassroots “Yellow Vest” protesters who earlier this year clashed with police and blocked roads around France for weeks on end.

Having emerged from that crisis, he carries himself with a swagger on the world stage, publicly upbraiding U.S. President Donald Trump this week over his approach to the NATO alliance and counter-terrorism.

But the pension reform – on which polls show French people evenly split between supporters and opponents – is fraught with risk for him as it chips away at social protections many in France believe are at the heart of their national identity.

“People are spoiling for a fight,” Christian Grolier, a senior official from the hard-left Force Ouvriere union which is helping organize the strike, told Reuters.

The SNCF state railway said only one in 10 high-speed TGV trains would run and police reported power cables on the line linking Paris and the Riviera had been vandalized. The civil aviation authority asked airlines to cancel 20% of flights because of knock-on effects from the strike.

Past attempts at pension reform have ended badly for the authorities. Former president Jacques Chirac’s conservative government in 1995 caved into union demands after weeks of crippling protests.

(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez, Geert de Clercq, Sybille de La Hamaide, Marine Pennetier, Laurence Frost in paris and Guillaume Frouin in Nantes; Writing by Richard Lough and Christian Lowe; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies

Catalan protesters flood Barcelona on fifth day of rallies
By Jon Nazca, Jordi Rubio and Isla Binnie

BARCELONA (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of demonstrators waving pro-independence flags and chanting “freedom for political prisoners” poured into Barcelona on Friday, the fifth day of protests over the jailing of Catalan separatist leaders.

Roads leading into the city were packed as marchers from across the region joined a mass rally against this week’s verdict by Spain’s Supreme Court, which sentenced nine separatists to jail over a failed, 2017 secessionist bid.

The ruling set off the worst sustained street violence Spain has seen in decades, with anger running high in Catalonia. Unions in the wealthy region called for a general strike on Friday and students boycotted classes for a third day running.

The interior ministry has dispatched police reinforcements to the Mediterranean city, which is a major tourist magnet, and warned that troublemakers would be swiftly dealt with.

“Throughout this week, as you well know, there have been violent incidents in Catalonia. They have been organised … by groups who are a minority but are very organised,” Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska told a news conference. “Their actions, as we have already said, will also not go unpunished.”

Some masked youths hurled stones at police late in the afternoon on one city street, but the vast majority of Friday’s rallies were peaceful, with Barcelona’s broad boulevards packed with people draped in the Catalan independence flag.

“We have always been peaceful people, but you get to a point where you get treated in such a way that people are getting angry,” said Carlota Llacuna, a 19-year old student from the Maresca region near Barcelona. “They put our leaders in prison.”

One of the main ringleaders, Catalonia’s former chief Carles Puigdemont, has so far escaped trial after he fled to Belgium in 2017 when the independence drive was thwarted.

Spain this week renewed its bid to get him extradited and he was briefly detained by Belgian police on Friday before a judge ordered his release pending a decision on the Spanish arrest warrant. A court is meant to hear the case on Oct. 29.

EL CLASICO POSTPONED

Several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic because of Friday’s marches, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s main landmark, the multi-spired Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Antoni Gaudi, was closed due to the protests, an official told Reuters.

The Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) said in a statement on that Barcelona’s Oct. 26 home match against Real Madrid, which is known as “el clasico” and is one of the biggest rivalries in world sport, had been postponed due to security concerns.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport cancelled 57 flights on Friday, airport operator Aena said.

Barcelona town hall said 700 garbage containers had been set ablaze since protests began on Monday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totalling more than 1.5 million euros ($1.67 million).

In an apparent effort to hamper the protesters, a Spanish judge ordered on Friday the closure of web pages linked to a pro-independence group, Democratic Tsunami, which has been deftly directing its followers to various demonstrations.

However, as soon as its site was shuttered, the group migrated its homepage to a new url, sidestepping the ruling.

Democratic Tsunami is a new, secretive group that emerged in September and has drawn thousands of followers on both its website and social media.

Although it says it is committed to non-violent protests, many young demonstrators have battled police over the past three nights in Barcelona in scenes reminiscent of the some of the urban unrest that has rocked France over the past year.

Regional police said 16 people were arrested across Catalonia on Thursday, while health officials said 42 people needed medical attention.

(Reporting by Jose Elías Rodríguez, Clara-Laeila Laudette, Ashifa Kassam, Emma Pinedo and Paola Luelmo in Madrid, Andrea Ariet Gallego; Marine Strauss in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)

China police detain students protesting crackdown on Marxist group

People cycle past a building in Peking University in Beijing, China, July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese police detained a group of students on Friday who were protesting against a crackdown on a campus Marxist society, whose former head was held by police on the 125th birthday of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong. China has an awkward relationship with the legacy of Mao, who died in 1976 and is still officially venerated by the ruling Communist Party.

But far leftists in recent years have latched onto Mao’s message of equality, posing awkward questions at a time of unprecedented economic boom that has seen a rapidly widening gap between the rich and the poor.

In particular, students and recent graduates have teamed up with labor activists to support factory workers fighting for the right to set up their own union. Dozens of activists have been detained in a government crackdown that followed.

Qiu Zhanxuan, head of the Peking University Marxist Society, said he was approached on Wednesday morning at a subway station by plainclothes police who said they wanted him to answer questions about an event he was organizing to celebrate Mao’s birthday. Mao was born on Dec. 26, 1893.

When Qiu refused, the men took his phone, forced him into a car and drove him to a police station where he was questioned for 24 hours before being released with a warning, Qiu said, according to accounts provided by fellow students, who declined to be identified.

Late on Thursday, the university’s extracurricular activities guidance office released a notice saying police had penalized Qiu and he “did not have the qualifications” to continue as head of the society.

The teachers in charge of guiding the group had determined its members had deviated from promises made to teachers when the group was registered and so had “restructured” the group, the office said.

The “restructuring” was an attempt to “scatter” the group after weeks of continuous harassment by campus police and attempts to cast its members as being involved in a “conspiracy”, Qiu said, according to the accounts of his comments.

Qiu declined additional comment to Reuters.

‘PICKING QUARRELS’

None of the people on the new list of student leaders released by university authorities were previous members of the group, and many of them are members of the official Student Association that had been involved in harassing the group, Qiu said.

“We don’t recognize this,” he added, according to the accounts of his comments.

Later on Friday, a small group of students staged a protest against the action by the authorities, but were themselves detained by police, according to video footage sent to Reuters by one of the students.

The university referred Reuters to the statement issued by its extracurricular activities guidance office on why the Marxist group had been restructured.

The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.

Student unrest is highly sensitive, especially as next year marks 30 years since the bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests in and around Tiananmen Square.

Qiu said his non-academic school adviser, a deputy secretary of the Social Sciences party committee, Shi Changyi, was with him while police questioned him and had advised him not to be “extreme” or “impulsive”, according to the accounts of his comments.

Reuters was unable to reach Shi for comment.

Police gave Qiu a subpoena saying he was suspected of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble”, which is a crime, but they declined to elaborate, he said, according to the accounts of his comments.

“This was, plain and simple, a plan to restrict my personal freedom and to use these inhuman and illegal means to stop me from going to commemorate Chairman Mao.”

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Cate Cadell; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Brazil cities paralyzed by nationwide strike against austerity

A demonstrators holds a placard in front of a burning barricade during a protest against President Michel Temer's proposal to reform Brazil's social security system in the early hours of general strike in Brasilia, Brazil, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Brad Brooks and Pedro Fonseca

SAO PAULO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Nationwide strikes led by Brazilian unions to protest President Michel Temer’s austerity measures crippled public transport in several major cities early on Friday across this continent-sized nation, while factories, businesses and schools closed.

In the economic hub of Sao Paulo, the main tourist draw Rio de Janeiro and several other metropolitan areas, protesters used barricades of burning tires and other materials to block highways and access to major airports.

Police clashed with demonstrators in several cities, blocking protesters from entering airports and firing tear gas in efforts to free roadways.

Many workers were expected to heed the call to strike for 24 hours starting just after midnight Friday, due in part to anger about progression this week of congressional bills to weaken labor regulations and efforts to change social security that would force many Brazilians to work years longer before drawing a pension. In addition, the strike will extend a holiday weekend ahead of Labor Day on Monday.

This will be Brazil’s first general strike in more than two decades if it gets widespread participation.

Authorities boarded up windows of government buildings in national capital Brasilia on Thursday, fearing violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

Demonstrations are expected in other major cities across the Latin American nation of more than 200 million people.

“It is going to be the biggest strike in the history of Brazil,” said Paulo Pereira da Silva, the president of trade union group Forca Sindical.

Violent protests have occurred repeatedly during the past four years amid political turmoil, Brazil’s worst recession on record, and corruption investigations that revealed stunning levels of graft among politicians.

Nearly a third of Temer’s cabinet and key congressional allies came under investigation in the scandal this month, and approval ratings for the president, who replaced Dilma Rousseff last year after her impeachment, have fallen even further.

Rousseff’s Workers Party grew out of the labor movement, and her allies have called her removal for breaking budget rules an illegitimate coup.

“Temer does not even want to negotiate,” said Vagner Freitas, national president of the Central Workers Union (CUT), Brazil’s biggest labor confederation, said in a statement. “He just wants to meet the demands of the businessmen who financed the coup precisely to end social security and legalize the exploitation of workers.”

Marcio de Freitas, a spokesman for Temer, rejected the union’s criticism, saying the government was working to undo the economic damage wrought under the Workers Party government, which had the backing of the CUT.

“The inheritance of that was 13 million unemployed,” he said. “The government is carrying out reforms to change this situation, to create jobs and economic growth.”

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janiero; Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Lisa Von Ahn)

Trump to talk manufacturing with executives, meet labor leaders

President Donald Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump planned to hold meetings on Monday with business and labor leaders at the start of his first full week in office, seeking to work quickly on his campaign promise to boost the American manufacturing sector and deliver more jobs.

The Republican, who took office on Friday after eight years of a Democratic White House, was scheduled to meet with business leaders at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) and then hold an afternoon meeting with labor leaders and U.S. workers, according to his schedule.

The White House, which announced the meetings in a schedule released late on Sunday, did not name company executives or union leaders who would take part. White House officials did not immediately respond to a request for more details.

Trump said on Twitter early on Monday that he planned to discuss U.S. manufacturing with executives but gave no other details.

“Busy week planned with a heavy focus on jobs and national security,” Trump said in a tweet. “Top executives coming in at 9:00 A.M. to talk manufacturing in America.”

The morning gathering will include Dow Chemical Co Chief Executive Officer Andrew Liveris, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

Trump named Liveris in December to lead a private-sector group on manufacturing that will advise the U.S. secretary of commerce. Trump’s designated commerce secretary, billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, is known for backing tariffs and fighting to protect U.S. manufacturers but has also sent jobs abroad.

Before taking office, Trump hosted a number of U.S. CEOs in meetings in New York, including business leaders from defense, technology and other sectors. He also met with leaders of several unions, including the AFL-CIO.

Trump, a real estate developer, has particularly focused on manufacturing, lamenting during his inaugural address on Friday about “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and vowing to boost U.S. industries over foreign ones.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Roberta Rampton and David Shepardson; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Lisa Von Ahn and Frances Kerry)