President Emmanuel Macron, worried that the French parliament will not approve a fiercely contested bill raising the retirement age to 64 from 62, opted to push the legislation through on Thursday without a full parliamentary vote, a move that is sure to inflame an already tense showdown over the measure. .
After three meetings Thursday with Mr. Macron and a last-minute discussion with his cabinet, Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, informed the National Assembly, or lower house, of the government’s decision. She was greeted with heckling, boos and loud chants of the “Marseillaise”, the French national anthem, and had to wait several minutes before she could speak.
“We cannot bet on the future of our pensions,” Ms. Borne told lawmakers. “Reform is needed.
Previously, Mr. Macron had told government ministers: “My interest would have been to go and vote”, according to the Elysée, “but I consider that at the present time the financial and economic risks are too great”. He added: “We cannot play with the future of the country”.
The risk now for Mr Macron is that adopting a retirement age of 64 without a full vote in Parliament smacks of the kind of contempt and distance he has sometimes been accused of. The Yellow Vests movement in his first term, a huge and sustained protest against proposed fuel increases and other measures, Macron said. Rule by diktat was not the image he wanted to project during his second term. He strove to project a softer, more attuned Macron, less inclined to rule alone.
But the two-month showdown over his retirement plan had already revealed a weakened and more isolated president, with fewer allies he could trust.
The Senate, or upper house, approved the bill early Thursday. But the disarray in the lower house has come because Mr Macron’s Renaissance party does not hold a parliamentary majority, and even centre-right Republicans, who once pushed to raise the retirement age to 65 years, have balked at giving Mr Macron the support he needs as nationwide protests against the measure mount.
In the end, there was no assurance of sufficient parliamentary support for the measure – and now there is no assurance of respite for Mr Macron.
The decision to avoid a vote in the National Assembly, which will be seen by Mr Macron’s political opponents as undemocratic despite being legal, came after two months of large protests and intermittent strikes that exposed the chasm between Mr. Macron, who believes that this “The choice of society”, as he once said, is essential for the economic future of France and for the millions of French people who see the changes as an attack on their way of life.
Mr Macron, 45, was not ready to face the acute embarrassment of a defeat on an overhaul he has wanted since taking office in 2017. A first attempt to change pensions in 2019 also caused protests protests and strikes; it collapsed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s an extraordinary admission of weakness,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right nationalist National Rally party. “It is the expression of the total failure of Emmanuel Macron.” She looked like a politician with renewed confidence in her future.
The government has used a measure, known as 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution, which allows certain bills to pass without a vote. Opposition lawmakers now have 24 hours to file a no-confidence motion and have pledged to do so.
If the motion of no confidence is rejected, the bill stands and becomes the law of the land. If the motion of no confidence passes, the prime minister and Mr. Macron’s cabinet must resign and the bill is rejected.
At that point, Mr. Macron could reappoint Ms. Borne or appoint a new prime minister. But Mr Macron, although he has not expressed it publicly, has left the threat of dissolving the National Assembly if a no-confidence motion passes – which would lead to new legislative elections.
Yet all of this is considered unlikely. Left-wing and far-right opposition parties would welcome new elections, but many Republicans – whose leadership has presented itself as a stability opposition party – do not.
Mr. Macron and Ms. Borne tried to argue that the process they used was democratic because parliament will be able to vote, probably on Monday, on the motion of no confidence.
“There will be a vote on the text. It is provided for in our institutions, and it is the motion of censure,” Macron told ministers. Ms Borne told the National Assembly that, through the motion of no confidence, “parliamentary democracy will have the last word”.
But the appearance of a French democracy weakened by decree, without the National Assembly ever passing the law, is widespread.
Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Moderate Trade Unions, called the decision to pass the bill “a democratic iniquity”. He added that “the government had demonstrated that it did not have a majority to approve the two-year increase in the legal retirement age”.
The government has used Article 49.3 of the Constitution several times in the past year to pass budget bills, but the pension bill is far more controversial and consequential. Because many French people place social solidarity at the heart of the national economic model, and because work is widely perceived as a pain only compensated by the pleasures of retired life, raising the retirement age has become a essential test of what French society wants.
The country has appeared split in two over the past two months. As they shuttled between the National Assembly and the presidential palace on Thursday, ministers saw mountains of rubbish on the streets of Paris, a potent symbol of recent chaos. A garbage collectors’ strike will continue at least until Monday.
Charles de Courson, an independent centrist lawmaker, said: “The government is not just a minority in the National Assembly, it is a minority throughout the country. And we are a democracy.
Convincing French citizens that he respects this democracy will be a daunting task for Mr. Macron over the coming months.
Whether he would have been better off risking a vote, with a slim chance of humiliating failure, is an open question. Why he considered raising the retirement age to 64 such an urgent matter is unclear to many people, because although financial problems for the pension system are clearly looming, they are not are not imminent.
“This government is not worthy of the Fifth Republic,” said Fabien Roussel, the leader of the Communist Party in France. “The brutality with which this reform was imposed is hard on everyone.”
Mr Macron has long been convinced that with people living longer and in better health, a publicly funded system for retirement from age 62 was untenable. Fewer and fewer workers are paying the pensions of a growing number of retirees, who are living longer: this equation does not hold.
He saw raising the retirement age as important both for its financial impact and for its symbolism, a statement of French seriousness that will be part of his legacy.
With the war in Ukraine and acute economic pressures set to continue this year and beyond, and defense and energy spending sure to rise, Macron sees pension reform as a key foundation for a resilient France. with a balanced budget, at heart. of a Europe of greater “strategic autonomy”.
France is an exception. In Germany, retirement is at 65 years and 7 months. In Italy, it is 67 years old. Almost everywhere in the European Union, the retirement age has exceeded 65 years. Mr Macron has indeed sought to remedy an anomaly – to find out how attached the French are to it. .
Pierre Cazeneuve, a Renaissance lawmaker, blamed Republicans, torn between their belief in the necessity of the proposal and their dislike of Mr Macron, for the havoc. With their 61 seats added to the 250 held by Renaissance and its two allied centrist parties, the Republicans could have given Mr Macron a majority, but as street protests grew their support dwindled.
“We naively thought we could count on them,” said Mr. Cazeneuve.
Ms Borne, indeed speaking on behalf of the silent majority which twice elected Mr Macron rather than Ms Le Pen and prefers him to the far left and right, told the National Assembly: “Because I am attached to our social model, and because I believe in parliamentary democracy, I commit my responsibility to your reform, to the text voted in this Parliament.
If the vote of no confidence passes, she will lose her post as Prime Minister. As for Mr. Macron, his mandate runs until 2027, but, for the moment, his passage on this date promises to be clearly eventful.
Aurelien Breeden contributed report.