French President Macron risks his government to raise retirement age
French President Emmanuel Macron ordered his prime minister to wield a special constitutional power on Thursday to skirt parliament and force through a highly unpopular bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote.
His calculated risk set off a clamor among lawmakers, who began singing the national anthem even before Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrived in the lower chamber. She spoke forcefully over their shouts, acknowledging that Macron’s unilateral move would trigger quick motions of no-confidence in his government.
The fury of opposition lawmakers echoed the anger of citizens and labor unions. Thousands of people protested at the Place de la Concorde facing the National Assembly, some lighting a bonfire. As night fell, police charged against the demonstrators in waves to clear the elegant square, but hundreds remained nearly an hour later.
The unions that have organized strikes and marches since January, leaving Paris reeking amid piles of garbage, announced new rallies and marches in protest, saying: “This retirement reform is brutal, unjust, unjustified for the world of workers.”
Macron has made the proposed pension changes a top priority of his second term, arguing that reform is needed to keep the pension system from diving into deficit as France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.
Macron decided during a Cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace to invoke the special power, just a few minutes before a scheduled vote on the measure in France’s lower house of Parliament, because he had no guarantee of a majority.
“Today, uncertainty looms” about whether a majority would have voted for the bill, Borne acknowledged, but she added: “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary.”
French unions have announced more nationwide strikes and protests Jan. 31 against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age.
Borne drew boos from the opposition when she said her government was accountable to the Parliament. Lawmakers can try to revoke the changes through no-confidence motions, she said.
“There will actually be a proper vote, and therefore the parliamentary democracy will have the last say,” Borne said.
She said in an interview Thursday night that she was not angry about some lawmakers’ disrespect as she addressed them, but was “very shocked.”
“Certain [opposition lawmakers] want chaos, at the Assembly and in the streets,” she said.
Opposition lawmakers demanded that the government step down. One Communist Party lawmaker called the presidential power a political “guillotine.” Others called it a “denial of democracy” that signals Macron’s lack of legitimacy as president.
Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would file a no-confidence motion, and Communist lawmaker Fabien Roussel said the left had such a motion ready.
The French government is proposing broad changes to the pension system that will notably push back the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.
“The mobilization will continue,” Roussel said. “This reform must be suspended.”
The leader of the center-right Republicans, Eric Ciotti, said his party would not “add chaos to chaos” by supporting a no-confidence motion, but some of his fellow conservatives could vote for it.
A no-confidence motion, expected early next week, needs approval by more than half of the Assembly. If it passes — which would be a first since 1962 — the government would have to resign. Macron could reappoint Borne if he chooses, and a new Cabinet would be named.
If a no-confidence motion doesn’t succeed, the pension bill would be considered adopted.
The Senate adopted the bill earlier Thursday in a 193-114 vote, a tally that was largely expected since the upper house’s conservative majority favored the changes.
Raising the retirement age would require workers to put more money into the pension system, which the government says is on course to run a deficit. Macron has promoted the pension changes as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive. The reform also would require 43 years of work to earn a full pension, amid other measures.
Leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd at the Concorde that Macron had gone “over the heads of the will of the people.” Members of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were among the lawmakers singing the “Marseillaise” in an attempt to thwart the prime minister.
Union leaders announced even more strikes a day after nearly 500,000 people protested against the bill. Francois Hommeril, president of a major union representing energy workers and others, said the government “forces a vote when it is sure to win it,” and “prevents the vote when they know they would lose.”
Recent economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe, where many countries, like France, have had low birthrates, leaving fewer young workers to sustain pensions for retirees.
Spain’s leftist government joined with labor unions Wednesday to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system.
Spanish Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá said that France has a very different, unsustainable model and “has not addressed its pension system for decades.”
Spain’s workers already must stay on the job until at least 65 for a full pension, and won’t be asked to work longer — instead, their new deal increases employer contributions for higher-wage earners.
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