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France’s Unilateral Pension Reform Sparks Turmoil

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The French government on Thursday pushed controversial pension reforms through the National Assembly without a vote, deploying rarely used constitutional power and threatening to spark protests.

This step, using the so-called Article 49: 3 of the constitution, will ensure the adoption of a bill raising the retirement age for two years to 64 after weeks of heated protests and debates.

But it also shows that President Emmanuel Macron and his government have failed to muster a sufficient majority in Parliament.

A government source told Reuters that Macron considered that the financial and economic risks of not taking any action on reform were too great and that special constitutional powers were needed to advance reform.

“It was my interest and my political wish to go vote … but I consider the financial and economic risks too great,” Macron told senior cabinet ministers, according to the source who was present, adding that this was the reason for his acceptance. The government’s request to invoke special powers.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was booed as she arrived in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, to announce the special measure on Thursday.

Boos and cheers

The session was suspended for two minutes after the singing of the national anthem was prevented by Bourne from speaking. Some of the signs read, “Not even 64 years old.”

When the session resumed, Bourne took the floor, but her speech was largely drowned out by boos and cheers from opposition MPs and chants of “resignation”, in a chaotic scene rare in the French Parliament.

“We can’t bet on the future of our pensions, this reform is necessary,” Bourne told lawmakers, explaining why she used the 49:3 measure.

“We can’t risk seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to fruition,” she said.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the prime minister should resign. “This last-minute resort to 49:3 is an extraordinary sign of weakness,” she said, adding, speaking of Bourne: “You have to go.”

The Senate, the upper house, had given the green light to the bill in the morning, as expected, thanks to the support of conservative Republican (LR) senators.

But the afternoon vote in the National Assembly would have been a different matter. There, LR deputies were divided on the issue, and the government, needing their support, decided at the last moment to skip the vote.

“It is a complete failure of the government,” Le Pen told reporters. “From the very beginning, the government deluded itself into thinking it had a majority,” she said.

‘uncontrollable anger’

Resorting to this measure is likely to infuriate unions, protesters and left-wing opposition parties who say pension reform is unfair and unnecessary.

Opinion polls show two-thirds of the French oppose reform and the government has insisted it does not want to use Article 49:3, which critics consider undemocratic.

“This government is not worthy of our Fifth Republic and French democracy,” said Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party. “Until the end, Parliament was mocked and insulted.”

Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told Reuters earlier on Thursday that such a move could unleash “uncontrollable anger” after weeks of strikes and protests.

Le Pen’s National Rally and the left-wing France Insommés (France Unbowed) said they would demand no confidence in the government. However, that is unlikely to pass as most conservative lawmakers likely will not support it.

Macron and his government say raising the retirement age is necessary to get the pension system out of the red line by the end of the decade.

But his failure to secure a comprehensive pension reform majority in parliament is a blow to Macron’s ability to win the support of other parties and implement more reforms.

The second term

After trying and failing to push pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.

He defeated Le Pen, who was running on a pro-business platform that promised to cut unemployment and get the French to “work more” in order to fund the country’s social security system.

But political analysts say his mandate is weak, and his party lost its parliamentary majority in a June election, which saw the far-right become the largest opposition party.

Despite warnings from allies about the timing of pension reform so soon after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, the 45-year-old pressed ahead.

Opposition to the changes has been particularly strong in small and medium-sized towns, where Le Pen has much of her support.

The government’s biggest fear was a re-ignition of violent anti-government demonstrations, as memories of the 2018 revolution are still etched by “yellow vest” protesters who took to the streets to denounce Macron’s policies and style of governance.

Macron himself had promised a “new way” to his second term which he proposed would be less top-down.

rubbish piles

Meanwhile, trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes over the past six weeks, while some of the biggest protests have erupted in decades.

An estimated 1.28 million people took to the streets on March 7.

An ongoing strike by garbage collectors in Paris has seen some 7,000 tons of rubbish piled up in the streets, attracting rats and upsetting tourists.

The strike has been extended until next Monday, with the potential for serious public health problems leading to growing calls for the authorities to intervene.

The government has argued that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, eliminating privileges for some public sector workers and tightening criteria for obtaining a full pension is necessary to prevent a large deficit increase.

The change would also bring France in line with its European neighbours, most of whom have raised the retirement age to 65 or older.

Labor unions and other critics say the reform would penalize low-income people in manual jobs who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates less affected by the changes.

The political implications of imposing a reform that most of the population opposes are uncertain for Macron and the country as a whole.

Philippe Martinez, president of the CGT union, warned this week that forcing the legislation without a vote would be tantamount to “giving the keys to the Elysee” to Le Pen in the next presidential election in 2027.

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