(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron's government survived a parliamentary rebellion on Monday against a controversial move to ram through pension reforms that raise France's retirement age by two years to 64.
Macron's opponents in the National Assembly came up short in their bid to topple his government in a crucial vote on Monday evening. They were only nine votes shy of the 287 needed to bring down his government in a motion put forward by a centrist group. Parliamentarians also rejected a second no-confidence vote tabled by Marine Le Pen's far-right Nationally Rally. Le Pen said the pension law would be challenged at the Constitutional Council, a court that examines the constitutionality of laws.
Macron's foes on the far left and far right have led the charge against the president's center-right government, but centrist parties, including some members from France's center-right Republicans, voted to censure the government too.
Following the vote, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of far-left France Unbowed, urged people to continue protesting against the pension cuts.
“Emmanuel Macron played with fire in a powder keg” with these reforms, Melenchon said, as reported by Le Monde. “Nine votes are not enough to change our minds.”
Macron's allies in parliament, led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, argued the reforms were crucial to ensure France's fiscal stability.
“We are coming to the end of the democratic process of this essential reform for our country,” Borne said on Twitter.
As president, Macron was not directly at risk of being forced out of office, but a vote of no confidence may have led to new parliamentary elections and seriously weakened his position by causing a massive political dilemma.
Pundits say Macron may choose to ask Borne to resign in a bid to reset his agenda, which was seriously damaged last June when his party, Renaissance, lost its majority in the National Assembly shortly after he won re-election. Since coming to office in 2017, Macron has sought to enact sweeping changes to France in a bid to streamline bureaucracy, cut wealth taxes and make it easier for businesses to fire workers. He's succeeded in some areas, but his pro-business policies have also sparked massive protests. He made raising the retirement age central to his second term.
Last Thursday, Macron set off a political firestorm when he sidestepped parliament and increased the retirement age by using a constitutional device that allows presidents to enact legislation without the approval of the National Assembly.
He invoked his right to bypass parliament at the last moment because he feared the pension law would be struck down in a parliamentary vote. In response, opposition parties filed no-confidence motions.
Macron's move inflamed mass street protests, which turned violent at points over the weekend as riot police clashed with demonstrators in Paris and elsewhere. More than 600 people were arrested between Thursday night and Saturday night in Paris and in other cities. Heavily armored riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protests.
In Lyon, there were reports showing police using dogs to detain protesters on Friday night. During that night in Lyon, protesters entered and partially burned a town hall.
In Nice, the offices of Eric Ciotti, the president of France's Republicans party, were ransacked by protesters. Most Republicans, but not all, supported Macron's pension reforms and their votes played a crucial role in the push to bring down Macron's government on Monday.
Protests and strikes were expected to continue and large-scale nationwide strikes were planned for Thursday. All eight of France's large trade unions have urged their members to protest and go on strike.
On Monday, French media reported growing disruptions in fuel supplies and travel due to striking workers. About 8% of France's gas stations had run dry and the fuel shortages may worsen because oil refineries said they were being forced to shut down due to strikes.
Polls show that as many as 80% of French are opposed to the pension cuts. Workers in the most physically demanding jobs and women are among those expected to be the biggest losers.
Since he first came to power in 2017, Macron has failed to overhaul France's pension system due to determined opposition and mass demonstrations.
The battle over pensions has become a crucial test of strength for Macron, far-left and far-right opposition parties and French trade unions, which have seen their influence and importance decline in recent decades.
The government says the pension changes will bring in 17.7 billion euros ($18.7 billion) in revenue by 2030. The reforms would not affect certain state workers, such as police and firefighters. The government argues raising retirement must be done to ensure financial stability in the future and to get France in line with other European nations.
Along with raising the age of retirement to 64, the government is raising the minimum number of years a person must work to qualify for a full pension to 43 years.
But there is vigorous debate in France over the necessity of raising the pension age and how to pay for future budget shortfalls. Unions argue that employers should be made to pay higher taxes, but France already has among the highest tax rates in the EU.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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