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France protests: Why is Macron forcing a retirement-age hike?


French politics remained in a state of upheaval on Friday, 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 next week, 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 Friday. 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.

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 protesters who set fire to trash cans, photos and videos showed. Demonstrations were also reported in Toulouse, Marseille and Lyon.

Over 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, and more demonstrations were scheduled to take place later in the day.

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 against the pension reform. “It goes without saying that I encourage [the protesters],” he said.

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.)

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 was composed 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.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.