Macron vetoes pension age, sparks protests

Police and protesters have clashed in Paris after the French government decided to push through pension reforms without a vote in parliament. The proposed changes included raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and had sparked two months of heated political debate and strikes. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne invoked article 49:3 of the constitution, allowing the government to avoid a vote in the Assembly because there was no guarantee of winning a majority. The move caused fury among opposition politicians and citizens, who took to the streets to protest.

Many opposition politicians jeered the prime minister, and a no-confidence motion will be filed against President Emmanuel Macron’s government, suggested far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen. Leader of left-wing party La France Insoumise (LFI), Mathilde Panot, tweeted that Mr Macron had plunged the country into a government crisis without parliamentary or popular legitimacy. Thousands of people came out on the streets of Paris and other French cities to reject the move, singing the national anthem and waving trade union flags. Some protesters clashed with police, and a fire was lit in the middle of the Place de la Concorde. By nightfall, 120 people had been arrested.

Unions vowed to maintain their opposition to the pension changes, with the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) saying another day of strikes and demonstrations was being planned for Thursday, 23 March. The constitutional procedure that has prompted all this anger is called the article 49:3, and it is part of the political vocabulary in France. Although Mr Macron was re-elected last year on a platform of retirement reforms, his ruling coalition has no majority in the Assembly and would have needed support from the Republicans party to pass the pension changes.

Officials from Mr Macron’s Renaissance party spent the morning whipping members into line in a bid to pass their bill. They knew some of their MPs could vote against or abstain, faced with the evident unpopularity of the bill, so they resorted to special constitutional powers. However, whenever a government invokes the 49:3, it can be sure it will be accused straight away of riding roughshod over the will of the people. The use of the procedure is a way to bypass a vote that might be lost, but the downside for the government is that the opposition parties can immediately table a vote of no-confidence. If these are voted through, the government falls.

The dispute once again makes France look unreformable. By comparison with other countries in Europe, the change to the pension age is far from dramatic. But the bill is regularly described by opponents as “brutal”, “inhuman” and “degrading”. Morale in France is low and getting lower, and people see retirement as a bright spot in the future. But many feel that this is a rich man’s government taking even that away. Despite the uproar, it is unlikely that the far-right, the left, and much of the conservative opposition will come together to vote the government out.

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