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News about Climate Change and our Planet

Macron, Trying to Move Past Pension Fury, Announces Water Plan

Macron, Trying to Move Past Pension Fury, Announces Water Plan

President Emmanuel Macron of France presented conservation proposals after an exceptionally dry winter. But his government is still dogged by pension protests.

President Emmanuel Macron of France wanted to talk about water.

“I am here to move forward on a crucial topic,” Mr. Macron told a cluster of reporters on Thursday in Savines-le-Lac, a town in the French Alps on the banks of one of Europe’s biggest freshwater reservoirs. He was about to announce sweeping government plans to improve water conservation after one of France’s driest winters on record.

But his trading the agitated, trash-filled streets of Paris for fresh alpine air and a scenic backdrop of snow-capped mountains was not enough to escape the public’s anger against him over his new pension law.

An audible hubbub in the distance — from several hundred protesters held back by scores of police officers but chanting and whistling loudly — showed that while Mr. Macron considered his law a nearly done deal, many in France did not.

It was the French president’s first domestic trip in weeks, announced at the last minute amid ongoing protests over his decision to raise the legal retirement age to 64 from 62 by bypassing a full vote in Parliament.

“There is a social movement against a reform,” Mr. Macron acknowledged on Thursday. “But that doesn’t mean that everything else has to stop.”

The protesters saw it differently.

“In the Hautes-Alpes as elsewhere, Emmanuel Macron cannot act like nothing is happening,” the local office of France’s second-largest labor union, the Confédération Générale du Travail, said in a statement.

Police officers held back protesters before the arrival of Mr. Macron in Savines-le-Lac. In a speech there, he said that water use was one of the most pressing issues in France.Pool photo by Sebastien Nogier

The pension change, now law, is undergoing a review by the Constitutional Council, which ensures that legislation conforms to the French Constitution, before it can be officially put in place. A ruling is expected on April 14.

In a speech from Savines-le-Lac, Mr. Macron said that 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, Mr. Macron said, the country will aim to cut its water consumption by 10 percent by 2030. He said that industries like farming, energy and tourism would be asked to draw up water-conservation plans and that the government would invest heavily in replacing leaking pipes and aging infrastructure.

He said the country would try to recycle 10 percent of its used water as opposed to less than 1 percent today by, for instance, asking nuclear power plants to reuse cooling water instead of releasing it.

Mr. Macron also announced that a price scale for water would be expanded, meaning that the more water a household used, the more expensive it would become. Water used for everyday purposes like washing or cleaning will remain cheap, he said, but water used to fill up a pool, for example, will cost more.

“With climate change, water has become a strategic issue for the whole nation,” Mr. Macron said.

Boats abandoned on the shores of Serre-Ponçon lake when the water level dropped. Mr. Macron said France would aim to cut its water consumption by 10 percent by 2030.Pool photo by Sebastien Nogier

Heat waves in Europe are increasing in intensity and at a faster rate than in almost any other part of the planet, according to scientists, who say that global warming and other factors involving the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean all play a role.

While scientists say that tying a single heat wave to climate change requires careful analysis, there is little doubt that heat waves around the world are becoming hotter, longer and more frequent.

France Nature Environnement, a federation of environmental defense groups, welcomed Mr. Macron’s plan but said in a statement that some of his water-reduction goals were not ambitious enough.

“At a minimum, France has already experienced a 14 percent decrease in its renewable freshwater resources since the beginning of the century, and almost nothing has been done to adapt to it,” said Arnaud Schwartz, the president of the federation. “Postponing deadlines will inevitably continue to weigh on ecosystems.”

Mr. Macron’s emphasis of water conservation amid anger against him was a delicate balancing act, especially after violent clashes erupted last week between protesters and riot police in Sainte-Soline, an area of western France where a government-backed plan to build large open-air water reservoirs has attracted intense opposition.

Many of the protesters had gathered peacefully, but thousands of more radical activists tried to breach a police line guarding the empty reservoir. Officers fired thousands of tear-gas canisters and dispersal grenades to push them back, and protesters responded by throwing firebombs, rocks and other projectiles, and setting several police vans on fire.

Two protesters are still in a coma after being injured in the clashes. The circumstances of their injuries have not been fully determined, but they have fueled heated accusations from environmental activists that the local authorities and the police had prevented emergency workers from quickly reaching, evacuating and treating the two protesters, men in their 30s.

“My son did not get the full care that he needed,” Nathalie Duval, the mother of one of the men, told the BFMTV news channel on Thursday, adding that he had sustained internal bleeding after being hit by a rubber projectile.

The families of both protesters have filed legal suits against the authorities, and activist groups have called for protests in front of government offices across the country on Thursday evening.

Violent clashes erupted last week between protesters and riot police in Sainte-Soline, France, where a plan to build water reservoirs has attracted opposition.Thibaud Moritz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The government says reservoirs like the one in 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 flared in France in recent months as rising temperatures and recurring droughts have brought river and groundwater levels to record lows and sparked devastating wildfires.

Christophe Béchu, the environment minister, noted on Thursday in Savines-le-Lac that a few areas in France were still under water restrictions from the summer, when almost all of the country’s departments were facing such high temperatures and severe drought that the authorities trucked in tanks and bottles of water to some towns.

“The drought we experienced in 2022 affected us all,” Mr. Béchu said. But, he added, such droughts “are no longer exceptional.”

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