PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday imposed a deeply unpopular bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by bypassing parliament and invoking a special constitutional power.
Lawmakers clamored, their voices trembling with emotion as Macron made the risky move expected to spark swift no-confidence votes in his government. Riot police vans whizzed by outside the National Assembly, their sirens blaring.
The proposed pension changes have sparked major strikes and protests across the country since January. Macron, who made it the flagship of his second term, argued that the reform is necessary to prevent the pension system from plunging into deficit as France’s population ages and life expectancy increases.
The decision to invoke the special power was taken at a cabinet meeting at the Elysee presidential palace just minutes before the scheduled vote, as Macron had no guarantee of a majority in France’s lower house.
When Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne tried to formally announce the decision in the National Assembly, leftist members broke into the French national anthem, delaying her speech. The speaker had to briefly interrupt the session to restore order.
“Today there is uncertainty” about whether a majority would have voted for the bill “by just a few votes,” Borne explained. “We cannot risk seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate collapse… We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary,” she said.
Borne said her government must be accountable to parliament, prompting boos from the ranks of the opposition.
“In a few days I have no doubt… there will be one or more motions of no confidence. There will actually be a vote and therefore parliamentary democracy will have the last word,” she added.
One by one, opposition lawmakers emerged from the Assembly demanding the government’s resignation. A Communist legislator called presidential power a political “guillotine.” Others called it a “denial of democracy”, pointing to Macron’s lack of legitimacy. A union leader called it “institutional violence” and called for more strikes and protests.
Marine Le Pen said her far-right National Rally party would introduce a vote of no confidence, 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.”
Republican party head Eric Ciotti said his group “will not add chaos to chaos” by supporting a no-confidence motion, but some of his fellow conservatives who disagree with the party’s leadership would say vote individually for such a motion.
To pass, a motion of no confidence must be approved by at least half of the seats in the lower house – there are now 287. In that case, a first since 1962, the government would have to resign.
If no-confidence motions fail, the pension law is considered passed.
Earlier Thursday, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 193-114, a score largely expected as the conservative majority of the upper house of parliament favors raising the retirement age.
Macron’s alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, forcing the government to rely on conservative lawmakers to pass the bill. Left-wing and far-right lawmakers are fiercely opposed and conservatives are divided, making the outcome unpredictable.
The French leader wants to raise the retirement age so that workers put more money into the system, which the government says is heading for a deficit.
Macron has promoted pension changes as central to his vision to make the French economy more competitive. The reform would raise the minimum retirement age and require 43 years of work to earn a full pension, among other measures.
Union leaders reacted furiously and determined to stage even more strikes a day after nearly 500,000 people protested against the bill. Francois Hommeril of the CFE-CGC, who also represents energy workers, said the government “forces a vote when it is sure it will win” and “prevents the vote when it knows it would lose”.
Across the River Seine from the National Assembly, hundreds took part in an unannounced meeting at the Place de la Concorde, where security forces, backed by a water cannon, stood ready. Leftist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon told the crowd that Macron “has gone over the heads of the will of the people”.
Members of Melenchon’s France Unbowed party were among lawmakers who chanted the Marseilles in an attempt to thwart the prime minister’s call for the bill to pass without a vote.
Economic challenges have sparked widespread unrest in Western Europe, where many countries, such as France, have such low birth rates that young workers may not be able to afford pensions for retirees. Spain’s left-wing government joined unions on Wednesday in announcing a “historic” deal to save his pension system.
Spain’s Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá said the French have a very different, unsustainable model and “have not addressed their pension system for decades”. The Spanish workers have to work until the age of 65 and will not be asked to work longer. Instead, the new agreement increases employer contributions for higher wage earners.
Associated Press contributors include Barbara Surk in Nice and Elaine Ganley, Angela Charlton, Jeffrey Schaeffer, Nicolas Garriga, Masha MacPherson and Alex Turnbull in Paris.