Protests in Paris as Macron forces through controversial pension reform

French President Emmanuel Macron shunned parliament on Thursday and invoked a special constitutional power to force through a controversial pension reform that raises the retirement age by two years to 64. The risky move sparked protests outside the National Assembly and is expected to trigger motions of no-confidence in his government.

The decision was made just a few minutes before the vote was scheduled at the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament.

The retirement age has now been raised by two years to 64 in a pension reform that is the flagship legislation of Macron’s second term. The unpopular plan has prompted major strikes and protests across the country since January.

The move is expected to trigger a quick no-confidence motion in Macron’s government.

The announcement came hours after the Senate, France’s upper house, adopted the bill Thursday morning in a 193-114 vote, a tally that was largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house of parliament favours a higher retirement age.

But the government was unsure of the vote numbers in the National Assembly, forcing French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to announce the triggering of Article 49.3.

Opposition reacts with fury
The decision runs the risk of further inflaming the protests and strikes that have rocked France over the last months. It also gives the opposition the right to immediately call a confidence vote in parliament.

The opposition reacted with fury to the decision to avoid a vote after weeks of debates on the legislation.

French opposition lawmakers jeered as Borne announced the decision, and many MPs began singing the national anthem in the lower house.

The session was suspended for two minutes as the reaction from left-wing lawmakers 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 MPs and shouts of “resignation”, in a rare chaotic scene in the French parliament.

“When a president has no majority in the country, no majority in the National Assembly, he must withdraw his bill,” said Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure.

Far-right French politician Marine Le Pen denounced the move and said she would file a motion of no-confidence in the government in parliament.

The decision is a “total failure” for Macron and Prime Minister Borne “cannot stay” in her post, said Le Pen, the far-right candidate in 2022 presidential elections and who now leads National Rally (RN) deputies in parliament.

Across the River Seine from the National Assembly, police fired tear gas at protesters on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where some 7,000 people demonstrated against the government’s pension changes in a spontaneous and unplanned rally.

Lines of police with shields and batons drawn advanced towards the square, while others fired water cannon after a fire was lit in the middle of the square.

A Reuters reporter saw cobblestones being thrown at the police, who charged to break up groups of protesters.

‘Parliament has been ridiculed, humiliated’
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.

“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.

Macron has promoted the pension changes as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive.

Nearly 500,000 people protested against the bill around the country on Wednesday.

Economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe. In Britain on Wednesday, teachers, junior doctors and public transport staff were striking for higher wages to match rising prices. And Spain’s leftist government joined with labor unions to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system by raising social security costs for higher wage earners.