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France protests: What to know as Macron forces a retirement-age hike

French police fired tear gas and water cannons March 16 to disperse protesters during a rally in Paris against the government's pension changes. (Video: Reuters)
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French politics remained in a state of upheaval over the weekend, after President Emmanuel Macron’s government forced through a contentious pension bill without a key Parliament vote, escalating a long-brewing crisis.

Opposition lawmakers filed several requests for a no-confidence vote on Monday, which could topple the government led by Macron-appointed Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. As of Friday evening, the opposition still appeared to lack the number of votes that would be necessary to bring down Borne and her government.

But there were also mounting concerns over the impact of Macron’s decision on social peace in the country. Protests erupted across several French cities Thursday night and continued into the weekend.

Unions are planning a new round of nationwide mobilization next Thursday.

The pension law, which raises the minimum retirement age by two years to 64, has roiled the European nation for weeks. Macron has insisted that the age hike is necessary to guarantee the survival of France’s generous pension system, but millions have taken to the streets, while strikes shut down schools and public transit and mounds of trash have collected on the streets.

Here are some key things to know about the controversy.

Risk of social unrest

In Paris on Thursday night, police fired tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators gathered at the Place de la Concorde. In Nantes in western France, riot police faced off against protesters who set fire to trash cans, photos and videos showed. Demonstrations were also reported in Toulouse, Marseille and Lyon.

More than 300 people were detained, and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin criticized the clashes as “mayhem.”

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, said there could be more violent clashes. “The fact that [Macron] is now effectively imposing a change top-down, I think, will further reinforce and exacerbate those risks,” he said Thursday.

In another sign that protests weren’t slowing down, union members blocked key entry roads into Paris on Friday morning, before another night of protests that turned violent. Thousands danced and lit a bonfire at the Place de la Concorde, before clashes broke out between protesters and police. More than 60 people were arrested in Paris and 36 in Lyon on Friday, French media reported.

Police on Saturday prohibited protests in the area around Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysees in Paris, Agence France-Presse reported. Still, thousands of angry citizens took to the streets Saturday in the capital and in cities including Nantes and Brest. The demonstrations were largely peaceful, but some protesters set fire to trash cans or hurled fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas, according to photos and videos.

In photos: Second day of violent protests roils France after pension overhaul

Some union leaders warned of the potential for wider, grassroots social unrest reminiscent of the Yellow Vest movement, which brought weekly demonstrations and frequent confrontations with riot police for a year and a half before coronavirus pandemic restrictions effectively killed the movement.

Far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a key opponent of the increase in the pension age, said such “spontaneous mobilisations” were a “fundamental” new development in the resistance. “It goes without saying that I encourage [the protesters],” he said.

Representatives of a dozen unions announced a massive protest for March 23, the hard-line CGT Union said.

Retirement age

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

Macron said that the hike is needed to reflect changing demographics. For instance, life expectancy in France has increased by about three years in the past two decades. If the retirement age were to remain fixed at 62, there would only be 1.2 taxpaying workers to support each retiree in 2070, down from 1.7 in 2020, government data shows.

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

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

But opponents argue that the measure will disproportionately affect blue-collar workers, who are more likely to begin working at a younger age than their white-collar counterparts. (People employed in certain professions that are considered physically or mentally demanding will still be allowed to retire earlier with a full pension.)

Retirement is a cherished period of French life, and many consider work-life balance to be a cornerstone of French culture. France has a long tradition of labor and social rights, and perceived attempts to infringe these foundational values tend to inflame unrest.

An earlier plan for pension reform, which Macron put forward in 2019 and later dropped, prompted the longest strike in more than half a century in France, with transport stoppages causing widespread disruption. In 1995, the government at the time was forced to abandon its proposed reform in the face of mass protests.

Article 49.3

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

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

Macron’s party and its partners do not command an absolute majority in the National Assembly and are only able to pass legislation in that chamber by forming temporary alliances or encouraging lawmakers from other parties to abstain.

Macron raises French retirement age without vote, prompting 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 passes. But it would force the resignation of his handpicked prime minister and significantly dent his authority.

Many analysts do not believe the no-confidence vote will pass because the opposition is fragmented among left-wing, far-right and center-right parties.