President Emmanuel Macron of France wanted to talk about water.
“I am here to make progress on a crucial issue,” Macron told a group of reporters on Thursday in Savines-le-Lac, a riverside town in the French Alps. one of the largest freshwater reserves in Europe. He was about to announce a sweeping government plans to improve water conservation after one of the driest winters on record in France.
But trading the hectic, trash-strewn streets of Paris for fresh alpine air and a scenic backdrop of snow-capped mountains wasn’t enough to escape public anger against him over his new pension law.
An audible riot in the distance, from several hundred protesters held back by dozens of police but chanting and whistling loudly, showed that while Macron considered his law a near-done deal, many in France did not.
It was the first national trip for the French president in weeks, announced at the last minute amid ongoing protests over his decision to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 by bypassing a vote in parliament.
“There is a social movement against a reform,” Macron acknowledged on Thursday. “But that doesn’t mean everything else has to stop.”
The protesters saw it differently.
“In Hautes-Alpes as elsewhere, Emmanuel Macron cannot act business as usual,” the local office of France’s second-largest union, the Confédération Générale du Travail, said in a statement. statement.
The pension change, now law, is being reviewed by the Constitutional Council, which ensures that the legislation conforms to the French Constitution, before it can be officially put into effect. A ruling is expected on April 14.
In a speech from Savines-le-Lac, Macron said water use was one of the most pressing issues in France, which had just experienced an exceptionally dry winter, with a record 32 days without rain. Aquifer levels were still “below normal” in March, with “80 percent of them being moderately low to very low.” according to the French Geological Survey.
To help France cope with a drier future, Macron said, the country will try to reduce its water use by 10 percent by 2030. He said industries including agriculture, energy and tourism will be asked to draw up plans water conservation and that the government would invest heavily in replacing leaky pipes and outdated infrastructure.
He said the country would aim to recycle 10 percent of its used water compared with less than 1 percent today, for example by asking nuclear power plants to reuse cooling water rather than release it.
Mr Macron also announced that a price scale for water would be extended, meaning the more water a household used, the more expensive it would be. Water used for everyday purposes like washing or cleaning will remain cheap, he said, but water used to fill a swimming pool, for example, will cost more.
“With climate change, water has become a strategic issue for the entire nation,” Macron said.
Heat waves in Europe are increasing in intensity and at a faster rate than almost anywhere else on the planet, say scientists, who say global warming and other factors related to the circulation of the atmosphere and ocean play a role. important.
While scientists say linking a single heat wave to climate change requires careful analysis, there is no question that heat waves around the world are getting hotter, longer and more frequent.
France Nature Environnement, a federation of environmental advocacy groups, welcomed Macron’s plan but said in a statement that some of his water reduction goals were not ambitious enough.
“At the very least, France has already experienced a 14 percent decline in its renewable freshwater resources since the turn of the century, and almost nothing has been done to adapt,” said Arnaud Schwartz, president of the federation. “Postponing deadlines will inevitably continue to weigh on ecosystems.”
Macron’s emphasis on conserving water amid anger against him was a delicate balancing act, especially after violent confrontations erupted last week between protesters and riot police in Sainte-Soline, an area in western France where a government-backed plan to build large open-air water tanks has drawn strong opposition.
Many of the protesters had gathered peacefully, but thousands of more radical activists tried to break through a police line guarding the empty warehouse. Officers fired thousands of tear gas canisters and cluster grenades to drive them back, and protesters responded by throwing firebombs, rocks and other projectiles, and setting several police vans on fire.
Two protesters remain in a coma after being injured in the clashes. The circumstances of his injuries have not been fully determined, but have fueled heated accusations of environmental activists that local authorities and the police had emergency workers forewarned to quickly reach, evacuate and treat the two protesters, men in their 30s.
“My son didn’t get all the care he needed,” Nathalie Duval, the mother of one of the men, he told the BFMTV news channel on Thursday, adding that he had suffered internal bleeding after being hit by a rubber projectile.
The families of both protesters filed legal claims against the authorities, and activist groups called protests outside government offices across the country on Thursday night.
The government says that reservoirs like Sainte-Soline will serve the agricultural industry during the increasingly arid spring and summer months, while opponents say they will privatize water use by a few industrial farmers who are not adapting to a changing climate.
That dispute is one of several conflicts over water and its uses that have erupted in France in recent months as rising temperatures and recurring droughts have pushed river and groundwater levels to record lows and caused devastating forest fires.
Christophe Béchu, the environment minister, said Thursday in Savines-le-Lac that some areas of France were still under water restrictions since the summer, when almost every department in the country faced temperatures so high and severe drought that the authorities transported in trucks. in tanks and bottles of water to some towns.
“The drought we experienced in 2022 affected us all,” said Mr Béchu. But, he added, such droughts “are no longer exceptional.”