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French court backs Macron pension reforms, sparking more protests

France's Constitutional Council approved President Emmanuel Macron's bypassing of parliament to raise the age of retirement by two years. The legal battle now turns to a recall referendum.

(CN) — France's constitutional court on Friday upheld President Emmanuel Macron's deeply unpopular move to raise the age of retirement without a vote in parliament and in the face of widespread public opposition and protests.

The Constitutional Council said Macron's government did not violate the law by using a constitutional device that allowed it to bypass parliament to ram through the pension cuts. The president wanted to avoid a parliamentary vote because he risked a humiliating defeat.

Scenes in Paris near the court and elsewhere in the capital showed large-scale protests and tensions were expected to rise during the night Friday following the ruling. The Constitutional Council was ringed by police and guarded by heavy barriers.

Since January, France has been hit by massive protests against Macron's push to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. All eight of France's trade unions have joined forces to oppose the pension cuts and millions of French have gone to the streets for 12 protest days since Jan. 18.

Although most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, there also have been fierce clashes between protesters and police. Hundreds of people have been arrested and scores injured. Police have come under intense criticism for hitting demonstrators with batons, launching tear gas and using police dogs.

The Constitutional Council's ruling was widely expected to go Macron's way and it will likely add even more fuel to street protests and strikes.

The core question before the court was whether the government could use article 49.3 in passing the pension reforms. This article allows the government to pass budget measures without the need to get parliamentary approval, but opposition parties said the pension reforms fell outside this criterion. The court disagreed.

When Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne triggered the article to pass the reforms last month, it was the 100th time the article had been used since France adopted its modern constitution in 1958, giving the president vast powers.

The fight over raising the pension age has grown into a constitutional crisis and paralyzed parliament, the National Assembly. Macron lost his majority in parliament after winning a second term to the Elysee last year and he faces four difficult years.

Despite polls showing two-thirds of French oppose the pension cuts, Macron is not backing down. On Friday, he took little time to sign the reforms into law after the court ruled.

During a visit on Friday to view the rebuilding of the fire-destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral, Macron told reporters “staying the course is my motto... We are not giving up on anything in the months to come.”

But the opposition isn't backing down either. Trade union leaders say they will continue calling for strikes and protests to force Macron to retreat. His political opponents on the left and right also are backing the protesters.

Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Rally and Macron's chief rival, said “the political fate of the pension reform is not sealed.”

The clash over pensions has badly damaged Macron, whose approval rating has fallen to 30%. Meanwhile, Le Pen has soared in polls with a majority of voters now saying they would vote for her over Macron if an election were held. Macron defeated Le Pen for a second time in a row last year when he took 58.5% of the vote in a run-off.

After Friday's court decision, opponents said they would push to get enough French voters to back a recall referendum to stop the pension law. A referendum could take place if about 4.9 million signatures are gathered within nine months. The Constitutional Council, though, must approve the lawfulness of such a referendum and it is expected to issue a ruling May 3.

“It is a really big constitutional crisis,” Damien Lacomte, a political scientist at the Pantheon-Sorbonne university in Paris, told France 24, a French public broadcaster.

“We have now a president who has, I think, exhausted most, if not all, of his political credit since his reelection,” Lacomte said.

He said Macron doesn't have many good options because he risks losing even more seats in parliament by calling snap elections while his relationship with the center-right Republicans is fragile. The Republicans were the only major party besides Macron's neoliberal Renaissance party that supported the pension reforms.

“Right now, he's in a very difficult situation because he cannot use the article 49.3 for every bill,” Lacomte said. “It will be very hard for him to move on; because clearly now what he wants to do is to move on, but the population doesn't want to move on, the trade unions don't want to move on. So, I think right now we are in a situation that is paralyzed.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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