French President Emmanuel Macron ordered his prime minister to wield a special constitutional power Thursday that skirts parliament to force through a highly unpopular bill raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote.
His calculated risk set off a clamor among lawmakers, 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 Macron's unilateral move will trigger quick motions of no-confidence in his government.
The fury of opposition lawmakers 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 neighborhood 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 organized 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.
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.
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, Borne acknowledged, but she said “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary.”
Borne prompted boos from the opposition when she said her government is accountable to the parliament. Lawmakers 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,” Borne said.
She said in an interview Thursday night on the TV station TF1 that she was not angry when addressing disrespectful lawmakers but “very shocked.”
“Certain (opposition lawmakers) want chaos, at the Assembly and in the streets,” she said.
Opposition lawmakers demanded the government step down. One Communist lawmaker called the 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 file a no-confidence motion, and Communist lawmaker Fabien Roussel said such a motion is “ready” on the left.
“The mobilization will continue,” Roussel said. “This reform must be suspended.”
The leader of The Republicans, Eric Ciotti, said his party won’t “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. Macron could reappoint Borne if he chooses, and a new Cabinet would be named.
If no-confidence motions don't succeed, the pension bill would be considered adopted.
The Senate adopted the bill earlier Thursday in a 193-114 vote, a tally largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house favored 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. 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 Macron has gone “over the heads of the will of the people.” Members of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were foremost among the lawmakers 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. Spain’s leftist government joined with labor unions Wednesday to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system.
Spain's Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá said the French have a very different, unsustainable model and “has not addressed its pension system for decades." Spain's workers already must stay on the job until at least 65 and won’t be asked to work longer — instead, their new deal increases employer contributions for higher-wage earners.