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French President Emmanuel Macron risks his government to raise retirement age

French President Emmanuel Macron (Michel Euler/AP, Pool)
Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley, Associated Press

French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered his prime minister to use a special constitutional power that skirts parliament to force through highly unpopular pension system changes.

His Bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 could become law without a democratic majority.

His calculated risk set off a clamour among politicians, who began singing the national anthem even before prime minister Elisabeth Borne arrived in the lower chamber.

She spoke forcefully over their shouts, acknowledging that Mr Macron’s unilateral move will trigger quick motions of no-confidence in his government.

France Macron Diplomacy
French President Emmanuel Macron (Michel Euler/AP, Pool)

The fury of opposition politicians echoed the anger of citizens and workers’ unions.

Thousands gathered at the Place de la Concorde facing the National Assembly, lighting a bonfire. As night fell, police charged the demonstrators in waves to clear the elegant Place.

Small groups of those chased away moved through nearby streets in the chic neighbourhood setting street fires. At least 120 were detained, police said.

Similar scenes repeated themselves in numerous other cities, from Rennes and Nantes in the east to Lyon and the southern port city of Marseille, where shop windows and bank fronts were smashed, according to French media.

Radical leftist groups were blamed for at least some of the destruction.

The unions that have organised strikes and marches since January, leaving Paris reeking in piles of garbage, announced new rallies and protest marches in the days ahead.

“This retirement reform is brutal, unjust, unjustified for the world of workers,” they declared.

Mr Macron has made the proposed pension changes the key priority of his second term, arguing that reform is needed to keep the pension system from diving into deficit as France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.

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Pallets burn as protesters demonstrate at Concorde square near the National Assembly in Paris (Thomas Padilla/AP)

Mr Macron decided to invoke the special power during a Cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace, just a few minutes before the scheduled vote in France’s lower house of parliament, because he had no guarantee of a majority.

“Today, uncertainty looms” about whether a majority would have voted for the Bill, Ms Borne acknowledged, but she said: “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary.”

Ms Borne prompted boos from the opposition when she said her government is accountable to the parliament. Politicians can try to revoke the changes through no-confidence motions, she said.

“There will actually be a proper vote and therefore the parliamentary democracy will have the last say,” Ms Borne said.

She said in an interview on Thursday night on the TV station TF1 that she was not angry when addressing disrespectful politicians but “very shocked”.

“Certain (opposition politicians) want chaos, at the Assembly and in the streets,” she said.

Opposition politicians demanded the government step down. One Communist politician called the presidential power a political “guillotine”.

Others called it a “denial of democracy” that signals Mr Macron’s lack of legitimacy.

Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would file a no-confidence motion, and Communist politician Fabien Roussel said such a motion is “ready” on the left.

“The mobilisation will continue,” Mr Roussel said. “This reform must be suspended.”

The leader of The Republicans, Eric Ciotti, said his party will not “add chaos to chaos” by supporting a no-confidence motion, but some of his fellow conservatives at odds with the party’s leadership could vote individually.

A no-confidence motion, expected early next week, needs approval by more than half the Assembly. If it passes — which would be a first since 1962 — the government would have to resign.

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Protests took place from Rennes and Nantes in the east to Lyon and the southern port city of Marseille (Daniel Cole/AP)

Mr Macron could reappoint Ms Borne if he chooses, and a new Cabinet would be named.

If no-confidence motions do not succeed, the pension bill would be considered adopted.

The Senate adopted the bill earlier on Thursday in a 193-114 vote, a tally largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house favoured the changes.

Raising the retirement age will make workers put more money into the system, which the government says is on course to run a deficit.

Mr Macron has promoted the pension changes as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive. The reform also would require 43 years of work to earn a full pension.

Leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd at the Concorde that Mr Macron has gone “over the heads of the will of the people”.

Members of Mr Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were foremost among the politicians singing the Marseillese in an attempt to thwart the prime minister.

Economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe, where many countries, like France, have had low birthrates, leaving fewer young workers to sustain pensions for retirees.

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