France’s Macron dismisses unrest, promises drought action plan

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to journalists upon his arrival in Savines-Le-Lac, southeastern France, on March 30, 2023. (Photo by Sebastien NOGIER / POOL / AFP)

by Marina Laouchez and Valerie Leroux
Agence France-Presse

SAVINES-LE-LAC, France (AFP) — President Emmanuel Macron announced new water-saving measures for France on Thursday as he sought to brush aside weeks of political turmoil over a deeply unpopular pensions reform.

Dozens of protesters calling for him to resign gathered in the Alpine village of Savines-le-Lac ahead of his announcement, as he faces the biggest challenge of his second term in office.

Two people were arrested before he even arrived on the shores of western Europe’s largest fresh-water reservoir.

“There is contestation over a reform, but it doesn’t mean everything else should grind to a halt… We need to continue working,” Macron told reporters against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

After a devastating heatwave last summer and record low rainfall this winter, Macron said he wanted to reuse 10 percent of all water in France by 2030.

“We have decided to launch 1,000 projects in five years to recycle and reuse water,” he said.

“We want to reuse 300 million cubic meters, or… 3,500 bottles of water per French person per year,” he said.

France currently reuses less than one percent of its water.

A protester holds a banner reading “Manu (in reference of France President Emmanuel Macron) we have a lot to worry about, if you manage water like a pension” during a demonstration against the visit of French President in Savines-le-Lac, French Alps, to present the “water plan”, on March 30, 2023. (Photo by NICOLAS TUCAT / AFP)

– Won’t ‘be calmed down’ –
Macron said all parts of the economy would be asked to decrease their water consumption by summer — not just the water-guzzling agricultural sector, but also energy, industry, tourism and leisure.

Last summer was Europe’s hottest on record.

Winter has also been particularly dry in France, with a record spell of 32 days without significant rainfall earlier this year.

The country’s groundwater levels were 80 percent lower than average on March 1.

Macron’s water plan was overshadowed by ongoing anger over his pensions plan, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

“Manu, we have a lot to worry about if you’re going to manage water like you did pensions,” read one protester’s poster in Savines-le-Lac on Thursday, addressing the president by his nickname.

Helen, a retired nurse, was among the protesters trying to shout down Macron during his speech.

“He says he’s here to speak about water, to calm us down, but we don’t want to be calmed down,” said the 68-year-old, who refused to give her surname.

Protesters also gathered in Paris and other French cities on Thursday night, for mainly peaceful demonstrations.

Seven people were arrested in Paris, after small groups of protesters turned violent, a police source told AFP.

Macron’s government on March 16 triggered widespread anger when it invoked a controversial executive power to ram through the bill without a parliamentary vote.

After two months of largely peaceful mass protests, spontaneous demonstrations have erupted on a daily basis, with some angry protesters clashing with security forces.

– ‘Unacceptable violence’ –
The authorities have blamed the unrest on violent “troublemakers” bent on damaging public property, but rights groups have criticized the police for disproportionate use of force in dealing with the crowds.

The White House said Thursday it supports a global right to protest peacefully.

“We support the right of people to protest and to express their opinions and to demonstrate peacefully there as we would anywhere,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said when asked about the situation in France.

The unrest has also trickled into protests not directly related to the pensions reform.

Two men are fighting for their lives in hospital after clashes on Saturday at a rally against giant water “basins” in the southwestern village of Sainte-Soline, one of whom woke up from a coma on Thursday.

Campaigners there were trying to stop the construction of the pools to irrigate crops, which they say will distort access to water amid drought conditions.

“There have been scenes of unacceptable violence these last few weeks,” Macron said.

There were peaceful protesters in Sainte-Soline, the president said, but also “you had thousands of people who simply came to wage war”.

He defended the concept of basins like the one in the village, which pump up groundwater in winter so farmers can draw from it in the summer.

“It’s not about privatizing water or allowing some to monopolize it,” he said.

But he did say future basin projects should be more economical with water and ensure farmers use less pesticides.

France’s highest constitutional authority will rule on the pensions reform on April 14.

© Agence France-Presse