March 17, 2023 08:07
French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a highly unpopular bill raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 on Thursday by shunning parliament and invoking a special constitutional power.
Lawmakers were shouting, their voices shaking with emotion as Macron made the risky move, which is expected to trigger quick motions of no-confidence in his government. Riot police vans zoomed by outside the National Assembly, their sirens wailing.
The proposed pension changes have prompted major strikes and protests across the country since January. Macron, who made it the flagship of his second term, argued the reform is needed to keep the pension system from diving into deficit as France's population ages and life expectancy lengthens.
The decision to invoke the special power was made during a Cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace, just a few minutes before the scheduled vote, because Macron had no guarantee of a majority in France's lower house of parliament.
Then, as Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne tried to formally announce the decision at the National Assembly, leftist members broke into the French national anthem, delaying her speech. The speaker had to briefly suspend the session to restore order. "Today, there's uncertainty" about whether a majority would have voted for the bill "by just a few votes," Borne explained. "We cannot take the risk to see 175 hours of parliamentary debate collapse... We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary," she said.
Borne said her government is accountable to the parliament, prompting boos from the ranks of the opposition. "In a few days, I have no doubts... there will be one or several no-confidence motions. There will actually be a proper vote and therefore the parliamentary democracy will have the last say," she added.
One by one, opposition lawmakers emerged from the Assembly demanding the government step down. One Communist lawmaker called the presidential power a political "guillotine." Others called it a "denial of democracy" that signals Macron's lack of legitimacy. One union leader called it "institutional violence" and called for more strikes and protests.
Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would file a no-confidence motion, and Communist lawmaker Fabien Roussel said such a motion is "ready" on the left. "The mobilization will continue," Roussel said. "This reform must be suspended."
The head of The Republicans party, Eric Ciotti, said his group won't "add chaos to chaos" by supporting a no-confidence motion, but some of his fellow conservatives at odds with the party's leadership could vote individually for such a motion.
To be adopted, a no-confidence motion needs to be approved by at least half the seats at the lower house -- that is 287 now. In such case, which would be a first since 1962, the government would have to resign. If no-confidence motions don't succeed, the pension bill would be considered adopted.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate adopted the bill in a 193-114 vote, a tally that was largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house of parliament favors raising the retirement age.
Macron's alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, forcing the government to count on conservative lawmakers to pass the bill. Leftists and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed and conservatives are divided, which made the outcome unpredictable.
The French leader wants to raise the retirement age so workers put more money into the 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 would raise the minimum pension age and require 43 years of work to earn a full pension, amid other measures.
Union leaders reacted with fury and a determination to stage even more strikes a day after nearly 500,000 people protested against the bill. Francois Hommeril of the CFE-CGC, representing energy workers among others, said the government "forces a vote when it is sure to win it" and "prevents the vote when they know they would lose."
Across the river Seine from the National Assembly, hundreds joined an unannounced rally at the Place de la Concorde, where security forces, backed by a water cannon, were on alert. Leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd that Macron has gone "over the heads of the will of the people." Members of Melenchon's France Unbowed party were among the lawmakers singing the Marseillese in an attempt to thwart the prime minister's call to force the bill through without a vote.
Economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe, where many countries, like France, have had such low birthrates that young workers might not able to sustain pensions for retirees. Spain's leftist government joined with labor unions Wednesday to announce a "historic" deal to save its pension system.
Spain's Social Security Minister Jose Luis Escriva said the French have 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 and won't be asked to work longer -- instead, the new deal increases employer contributions for higher-wage earners.
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