Pension reform protests escalate in France and violent anti-government rallies in Kenya
France: Protests against pension reforms persist, turn violent
Demonstrations and labor strikes against pension reforms have escalated into violent protests across France, deteriorating the security environment in the country over the past week. Millions of protesters throughout the country have blockaded streets, barricaded buildings, set garbage on fire, and thrown firecrackers and cobblestones at police officers, injuring more than 400 security personnel since March 17. More than 1,500 planned and spontaneous protests have materialized in major cities, including Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Brest, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg, since March 17. Protests in Paris have occurred on some of its most prominent avenues – predominately near Place de la Concorde, Place de la Republique, and Champs-Élysées – despite police bans on demonstrations. Police have attempted to quell the unrest by using tear gas and water cannons to disperse groups of protesters and arresting hundreds, including 234 arrests overnight in Paris on March 20. Concurrent labor strikes have triggered flight and rail cancellations and disrupted operations of educational institutions, factories, and oil facilities, as well as the delivery of public services, including electricity and garbage collection – resulting in 8,000 tons of uncollected garbage on Parisian streets. Participants in the protests have included students, teachers, and doctors, with union workers being an integral factor in both the current demonstrations and seven previous strikes in 2023. The strikes began on Jan. 19 as peaceful demonstrations to halt a pension reform bill increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64. The protests escalated after French President Emmanuel Macron bypassed the National Assembly on March 16 to raise the retirement age without parliamentary consent. The failure of two no-confidence votes in parliament on March 21 has preserved Macron’s ability to implement the pension reforms while igniting calls for further protests. While there is ample precedent for protest movements and strikes canceling or overturning unpopular laws, President Macron views the reform as crucial to balance France’s pension system and has demonstrated an unwillingness to cede to the popular unrest. One of France’s largest trade union confederations, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), has called for continued nationwide strikes through March 24, and opposition lawmakers have threatened to join the movement. The security environment in French cities is likely to remain volatile in the near term, characterized by persistent disruptions to transportation and other services as well as continued violent protests fueled by political opposition support.
Kenya: Anti-government protests escalate in Nairobi, Kisumu
Violent anti-government protests organized by opposition leader Raila Odinga swept Nairobi and the western city of Kisumu on March 20, resulting in mass arrests, casualties, widespread travel disruptions, and looting. Odinga and his One Kenya Coalition Party (also known as Azimio la Umoja) have disputed the results of the August 2022 general elections since the vote and called for protests against President William Ruto on March 19, demanding his resignation and blaming Ruto for the rising cost of living. In preparation for the protests, Kenyan security forces blocked access to the Central Business District and State House – the official residence of the president – and deployed riot police to downtown Nairobi. Despite the road closures and failure to receive a protest permit, a motorcade of Odinga’s supporters circled the city, impeding travel and business operations in several areas, including Embakasi, Tassia, Fedha, Juja Road, Ngong Road, and Outering Road. Many businesses closed ahead of the demonstrations amid fears of looting, and several commercial establishments in the affected areas that remained open reported theft. Protests turned violent when security forces deployed tear gas against the motorcade, prompting participants to throw stones and bricks at the police, which damaged at least 10 police vehicles. In addition to tear gas and water cannons, security forces also allegedly used live ammunition to disperse the crowd; one person was reportedly shot and injured during the protests. Anti-government protests also materialized in Kisumu – a major opposition stronghold located 263 km (164 mi) northwest of Nairobi – where security forces deployed similar crowd control tactics, reportedly shooting and killing one student and injuring another. Local media reports indicated that more than 230 people – including four opposition party members – were arrested during the demonstrations in both cities, with Kenyan officials reporting an estimated KES 2 billion (USD 15 million) in damages. In the absence of an effective government response to the economic grievances fueling the unrest, further demonstrations – which will likely materialize in the capital, as well as historic opposition strongholds in western counties around Lake Victoria – are possible in the short term, particularly following Odinga’s address to his supporters on March 20 calling for weekly protests. Additional demonstrations will likely disrupt overland travel and trigger a violent government security response, potentially impacting businesses operating in the affected areas.