France protests: why is Macron forcing an increase in the retirement age?


Large-scale protests broke out in several French cities after President Emmanuel Macron’s government enforced a controversial pension bill without a major vote in parliament, escalating a long-standing crisis.

In Paris, police fired tear gas and water cannons at protesters gathered at Place de la Concorde on Thursday night. In Nantes in western France, riot police took on protesters who set fire to bins, photos and videos showed. There were also demonstrations in Toulouse, Marseille and Lyon.

Some 217 people were detained in Paris, French broadcaster BFM reported. Representatives of a dozen trade unions announced a massive protest for March 23, the hard line CGT Union said. Some members of that union blocked access to Paris on Friday morning, local media reported.

The pension law, which raises the minimum retirement age by two years to 64, has stirred up the European nation. Macron has insisted that the age increase is necessary to ensure the survival of France’s generous pension system, but millions have taken to the streets as strikes have closed schools and public transport and mountains of rubbish have accumulated in the streets.

Now its passage — through a constitutional power that empowers the executive to force bills through the National Assembly — has fueled public anger. Opposition lawmakers have threatened a vote of no confidence that could oust Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister-designate.

Here are some important things to know about the controversy.

The French government’s plan raises the minimum retirement age by two years, so most people will need to be 64 — and have paid a certain amount of social security contributions — before they can receive a full state pension.

Macron said the increase is necessary to reflect changing demographics. For example, life expectancy in France has increased by about three years over the past two decades. If the retirement age were to remain fixed at 62, there will be just 1.2 tax-paying employees to support every retiree by 2070, up from 1.7 in 2020, government data shows.

Striking French workers dispute that they want the right to ‘laziness’

France already spends more on pensions than many other wealthy European countries. State pension spending was equivalent to 13.6 percent of the economy in 2021, compared to about 10 percent in Germany and nearly 11 percent in Spain, according to the OECD. Macron’s plan would strengthen the country’s pension system by $19 billion by 2027, Reuters reported.

But opponents argue the measure will disproportionately affect blue-collar workers, who are more likely to start working at a younger age than their counterparts. (People who work in certain occupations that are considered physically or mentally demanding are still allowed to retire early.)

Macron’s government invoked Article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows the executive to force bills without a vote by the National Assembly, the lower house of the legislature. (The Senate had already passed the pension bill.) The clause was drafted in the late 1950s as part of an effort to strengthen the French executive, which Charles de Gaulle said was paralyzed by a then-powerful legislature.

The article has been used at least 88 times by various governments and critics see it as an anti-democratic measure.

Macron’s party and its partners do not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly and can only pass legislation in that chamber by forming temporary alliances or encouraging lawmakers from other parties to abstain. Since the government applied Article 49.3, the opposition now has 24 hours to introduce a vote of no confidence against Borne, whose cabinet needs the support of the National Assembly.

Macron raises France’s retirement age without a vote, sparking backlash

Macron has been elected by voters to a second five-year term, so his position as president would not be directly affected if a parliamentary censure is passed. But it would force the resignation of its hand-picked prime minister and significantly erode his authority.

Many analysts do not believe the no-confidence vote will succeed because the opposition is fragmented between left, far right and centre-right parties.

Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.

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