France in turmoil as govt rams through pension reform without vote

The French government on Thursday pushed a controversial pension reform through the National Assembly without a vote, deploying a rarely used constitutional power that risks inflaming protests.

The move, using the so-called article 49:3 of the constitution, will ensure the bill raising the retirement age by two years to 64 is adopted after weeks of protests and fractious debate.

But it also shows President Emmanuel Macron and his government failed to garner enough of a majority in parliament.

Macron considered that the financial and economic risks of inaction on the reform were too great and that special constitutional powers were needed to push it through, a government source told Reuters.

“My interest and political wish were to go to a vote … but I consider that the financial and economic risks are too great,” Macron told senior cabinet ministers, according to the source who was present, adding that was why he accepted the government’s request to invoke special powers.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was greeted by boos as she arrived at the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, to announce the special procedure on Thursday.

Boos, chants

The session was suspended for two minutes after left-wing lawmakers singing the national anthem prevented Borne from speaking. Some brandished placards reading “No to 64 years.”

When the session resumed, Borne took the floor, but her speech was largely drowned out by boos and chants from opposition members of parliament and shouts of “resignation,” in a rare chaotic scene in the French parliament.

“We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions, this reform is necessary,” Borne told lawmakers, to explain why she was using the 49:3 procedure.

“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to nothing,” she said.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the prime minister should resign. “This last-minute resort to 49:3 is an extraordinary sign of weakness,” she said, adding, speaking of Borne: “She must go.”

The Senate, the upper house, had given its green light to the bill in the morning, as expected, thanks to support from senators from the conservative Les Republicains (LR).

But the afternoon vote in the National Assembly would have been a different matter. There, LR lawmakers were split on the issue and the government, which needed their support, decided at the last minute to skip a vote.

“It’s a total failure for the government,” Le Pen told reporters. “From the beginning, the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority,” she said.

‘Uncontrollable anger’

Resorting to the measure is likely to further enrage unions, protesters and left-wing opposition parties that say the pension overhaul is unfair and unnecessary.

Polls show that two-thirds of French people oppose the reform and the government had insisted that it did not want to use article 49:3, which is viewed by critics as undemocratic.

“This government is not worthy of our Fifth Republic, of French democracy. Until the very end, parliament has been ridiculed, humiliated,” Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party, said.

Socialist Party head Olivier Faure told Reuters earlier on Thursday that such a move could unleash “an uncontrollable anger” after weeks of rolling strikes and protests.

Le Pen’s National Rally and the left-wing France Insoumise (France Unbowed) said they would request a vote of no confidence in the government. However, that is unlikely to pass as most conservative lawmakers would likely not back it.

Macron and his government say raising the retirement age is necessary to get the pension system out of the red by the end of the decade.

But his failure to get the pension overhaul passed by a majority in parliament is a blow to Macron’s abilities to win support from other parties and carry out further reforms.

Second mandate

After trying and failing to push through pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.

He defeated Le Pen running on a pro-business platform that promised to lower unemployment and make the French “work more” in order to finance the country’s social security system.

But political analysts say his mandate is weak, and his party lost its parliamentary majority in elections in June, which saw the far-right become the biggest opposition party.

Despite warnings from allies about the timing of the pension reform so soon after the COVID-19 pandemic and in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the 45-year-old has pressed ahead.

Opposition to the changes has been particularly strong in small and midsize towns, where Le Pen draws much of her support.

The government’s biggest fear has been re-igniting violent anti-government demonstrations, with memories still fresh of the 2018 revolt by so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters who took to the streets to denounce Macron’s policies and governing style.

Macron himself had promised a “new method” for his second term that he suggested would be less top-down.

Garbage piles

Meanwhile, trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes over the last six weeks, while some of the biggest protests in decades have taken place.

An estimated 1.28 million people hit the streets on March 7.

A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has also seen around 7,000 tons of uncollected trash pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.

The strike has been extended until next Monday, with the prospect of serious public health problems leading to growing calls for authorities to intervene.

The government has argued that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, scrapping privileges for some public sector workers and toughening criteria for a full pension are needed to prevent major deficits from building up.

The change would also bring France into line with its European neighbors, most of which have raised the retirement age to 65 or above.

Trade unions and other critics say the reform will penalize low-income people in manual jobs who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates who are less affected by the changes.

The political implications of forcing through a reform opposed by most of the population are uncertain for Macron and the country at large.

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, warned this week that forcing the legislation through without a vote would amount to “giving the keys of the Elysee” to Le Pen for the next presidential election in 2027.

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