PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday ordered its prime minister to exercise a special constitutional power that bypasses parliament to push through a wildly unpopular bill raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote.
His calculated risk sparked a roar among lawmakers, who began singing the national anthem even before Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrived in the lower house. She spoke forcefully over their shouts, acknowledging that Macron’s unilateral decision will trigger swift no-confidence motions in his government.
The fury of opposition lawmakers echoed the anger of citizens and labor unions. Thousands of people gathered on the Place de la Concorde opposite the National Assembly, lighting a bonfire. As night fell, police charged at protesters in waves to clear the elegant Square. Small groups of hunted people moved into nearby streets in the upscale neighborhood, sparking street fires. At least 120 were arrested, police said.
Similar scenes were repeated in many other cities, from Rennes and Nantes in the east to Lyon and the southern port city of Marseille, where shop windows and bank facades were smashed, according to French media. Left-wing radical groups have been blamed for at least some of the destruction.
Unions that have staged strikes and marches since January, leaving Paris stinking in piles of rubbish, announced new rallies and protest marches in the coming days. “This pension reform is brutal, unfair, unjustified for the working world,” they said.
Macron has made proposed changes to pensions the top priority of his second term, arguing that a reform is necessary to prevent the pension system from sinking into deficit while France, like many wealthier countries, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancies.
Macron decided to invoke the special power during a council of ministers at the Elysée, a few minutes before the planned vote in the lower house of the French parliament, because he had no guarantee of a majority.
“Today there is uncertainty” as to whether a majority would have voted for the bill, Borne acknowledged, but she said: “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. This reform is necessary.
Borne drew boos from the opposition when she said her government was accountable to parliament. Lawmakers can try to revoke the changes through no-confidence motions, she said.
“There will in fact be a proper vote and therefore parliamentary democracy will have the last word,” Borne said.
She said in an interview on Thursday evening on television channel TF1 that she was not angry when she spoke to disrespectful lawmakers but “very shocked”.
“Some (opposition lawmakers) want chaos, in the Assembly and on the streets,” she said.
Opposition MPs demanded the resignation of the government. A communist lawmaker has called presidential power a political “guillotine.” Others called it a “denial of democracy” that signals Macron’s lack of legitimacy.
Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would table a no-confidence motion, and Communist lawmaker Fabien Roussel said such a motion was “ready” on the left.
“The mobilization will continue,” Roussel said. “This reform must be suspended.”
Republican Leader Eric Ciotti said his party would “not add chaos to chaos” by backing a no-confidence motion, but some of his fellow conservatives who disagree with the party leadership could vote individually.
A motion of censure, expected early next week, must be approved by more than half of the Assembly. If it passes — which would be a first since 1962 — the government would have to resign. Macron could renew Borne if he wishes, and a new Cabinet would be appointed.
If the no-confidence motions fail, the pension bill would be considered passed.
The Senate passed the bill earlier Thursday in a vote of 193 to 114, a tally widely expected since the conservative majority in the upper house favored the changes.
Raising the retirement age will encourage workers to pump more money into the system, which the government says is on the way to a deficit. Macron has promoted pension changes as central to his vision to make the French economy more competitive. The reform would also require 43 years of work to earn a full pension.
Left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd at Concorde that Macron went “above the will of the people”. Members of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were the first among lawmakers to sing the Marseillais in an attempt to thwart the prime minister.
Economic challenges have caused widespread unrest across Western Europe, where many countries, such as France, have had low birth rates, leaving fewer young workers to support retirees’ pensions. Spain’s leftist government joined unions on Wednesday in announcing a ‘historic’ deal to save its pension system.
Spain’s Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá said the French had a very different and unsustainable model and “hadn’t addressed their pension system for decades”. Spanish workers already have to stay on the job until they are at least 65 and will not be asked to work longer – instead their new deal increases employer contributions for top earners.
Associated Press contributors include Jeffrey Schaeffer, Nicolas Garriga, Masha MacPherson and Alex Turnbull in Paris; Barbara Surk in Nice; and Ciaran Giles in Madrid.