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With France in turmoil, Macron forced to push through pension plan

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government faces a vote of no-confidence and a new wave of strikes as he seeks to push through his contested pension reforms without parliament's consent.

(CN) — Facing defeat in a parliamentary vote, French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday triggered a so-called “nuclear option” to force his contested pension reforms into law without the National Assembly's approval.

The move to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote sets up a new showdown after opposition parties called for a no-confidence vote, putting at risk the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. A vote to censure the government was expected to take place Monday, though it looks unlikely to pass.

In bypassing parliament, Macron also stoked street protests led by all of France's eight major trade unions. Demonstrations have drawn massive crowds since January and polls show about two-thirds of French opposed to raising the retirement age. Protests broke out in central Paris and other cities Thursday and there were fears they might spiral out of control.

Macron, meanwhile, continued to stay out of the fray Thursday even as his government took such a risky move. He's made Borne lead efforts to get the unpopular legislation through parliament.

Shortly before the National Assembly was set to vote on the reforms Thursday afternoon, the government announced it was triggering article 49.3, a constitutional device that allows the executive branch to pass legislation without the consent of parliament. This was the 100th time the article has been triggered since France adopted its modern constitution in 1958, giving the president vast powers.

“In the eyes of French people, the 49.3 is associated with brutality,” Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures, a Paris think-tank, told AFP.

Borne has already invoked the article 11 times since becoming prime minister following Macron's reelection for a second term last spring. Only one previous prime minister has triggered the article more times – Michel Rocard, who used it 28 times between 1988 and 1991.

At an emergency cabinet meeting before Thursday's vote, Macron was told there was a risk the legislation would be defeated. Macron's party lost its majority last June in national elections and the pension bill faced opposition from members of his own bloc and from several parliamentarians affiliated with France's Republicans, a center-right party that has supported raising the retirement age in the past.

Borne was greeted with boos, jeers and calls to resign from the opposition when she appeared before the National Assembly to explain the government's reasoning for invoking article 49.3. Members of the far-left France Unbowed party sang the national anthem in an effort to drown out Borne's speech.

“We cannot gamble with the future of our retirement,” Borne told the chamber.

Opposition leaders decried the use of the “nuclear option” as undemocratic and trade union leaders said they would continue nationwide strikes that have disrupted travel, closed refineries and left trash to pile up in the streets of Paris.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally who lost to Macron in presidential elections last April, called the use of article 49.3 a reflection of Macron's “total failure.”

“It's his reform and it's the only one he defended during the campaign,” she told reporters. “We will make sure to censure the government.”

Francois Ruffin, a member of France Unbowed, vowed to bring down Borne and he accused Macron of using authoritarian tactics.

“We already had an Emmanuel Macron who crushes workers in France,” he said. “Today, we have an Emmanuel Macron who crushes democracy.”

Since he first came to power in 2017, Macron has failed to overhaul France's pension system due to determined opposition and mass demonstrations. Polls show more than 60% of French are opposed to raising the age of retirement. Workers in the most physically demanding jobs and women are among those expected to be the biggest losers.

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 hopes to raise 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.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Civil Rights, Employment, Government, International, Politics

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