France’s Macron bypasses parliament to push through unpopular pension reform

PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron ordered his prime minister on Thursday to use special constitutional powers, bypassing parliament, to pass a hugely unpopular law raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote.

His calculated risk sparked an uproar among lawmakers, who began singing the national anthem even before Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrived in the House of Commons. She spoke forcefully over her shouts, acknowledging that Macron’s unilateral move will spark quick movements of distrust in his government.

The anger of opposition MPs mirrored the anger of citizens and workers’ unions. Thousands gathered in the Place de la Concorde opposite the National Assembly and lit a bonfire. As night fell, the police attacked the protesters in waves to clear the elegant square. Small groups of the evicted roamed the nearby streets of the posh neighborhood setting street fires. At least 120 were arrested, police said.

Similar scenes were repeated in numerous other cities, from Rennes and Nantes in the east to Lyon and the southern port city of Marseille, where shop windows and bank facades were smashed, according to French media. Radical left groups have been blamed for at least part of the destruction.

The unions, which have organized strikes and demonstrations since January, which left Paris stinking in rubbish heaps, announced new rallies and protest marches for the coming days. “This pension reform is brutal, unjust, unjustified for the world of workers,” they declared.

Macron has made proposed pension changes a top priority his second term in office, arguing that reform was needed to prevent the pension system from spiraling into deficit as France, like many wealthier nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.

Macron decided to invoke the special power at a cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace just minutes before the scheduled vote in France’s lower house because he had no guarantee of a majority.

“Today there is uncertainty” about whether a majority would have voted in favor of the law, Borne admitted, but she said: “We cannot bet on the future of our pensions. This reform is necessary.”

Borne drew boos from the opposition when she said her government was accountable to parliament. Lawmakers could try to reverse the changes through motions of no confidence, she said.

“There will actually be a proper vote and therefore parliamentary democracy will have the last word,” Borne said.

She said in an interview on Thursday night on TF1 television that she wasn’t angry when she addressed disrespectful lawmakers, but was “very shocked”.

“Certain[opposition lawmakers]want chaos in the assembly and in the streets,” she said.

Opposition lawmakers called for the government to resign. One Communist lawmaker called presidential power a political “guillotine.” Others called it a “denial of democracy,” signaling Macron’s lack of legitimacy.

Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would table a motion of no confidence, and Communist lawmaker Fabien Roussel said such a motion was “ready” on the left.

“The mobilization will continue,” said Roussel. “This reform must be suspended.”

Republican leader Eric Ciotti said his party will not “add chaos to chaos” by backing a no-confidence motion, but some of his conservatives who are at odds with the party leadership could vote individually.

A motion of no confidence, expected early next week, must be approved by more than half the assembly. If it passes – which would be a first since 1962 – the government would have to resign. Macron could reappoint Borne if he so wished, and a new cabinet would be appointed.

If no-confidence motions are unsuccessful, the Pensions Act would be deemed adopted.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 193 to 114 earlier Thursday, a tally that was largely expected as the Conservative majority in the Upper House backed the changes.

Raising the retirement age will push workers to pour more money into the system, which the government says is on track to run a deficit. Macron has touted the pension changes as central to his vision to make the French economy more competitive. The reform would also require 43 years of work to earn a full pension.

Left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd at Concorde that Macron had “overruled the will of the people”. Members of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were among the leading lawmakers who chanted Marseilles to thwart the prime minister.

Economic challenges have led to widespread unrest across Western Europe, where many countries, such as France, have had low birth rates, leaving fewer young workers to secure pensions for retirees. Spain’s left-wing government joined forces with unions on Wednesday to announce a “historic” deal to save his pension system.

Spanish Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá said the French have a very different, unsustainable model and “haven’t looked at their pension system for decades”. Spain’s workers are already required to stay in the job until at least 65 and won’t be asked to work longer – instead, their new deal increases employer contributions for higher earners.


Associated press staff include Jeffrey Schaeffer, Nicolas Garriga, Masha MacPherson and Alex Turnbull in Paris; Barbara Surk in Nice; and Ciaran Giles in Madrid.

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