Protesters took to the streets across the country after French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet invoked a constitutional article to circumvent a parliamentary vote and increase the retirement age by two years, to 64.
About 10,000 protesters gathered in Paris at the Place de la Concorde by the National Assembly in a largely peaceful protest following the decision on Thursday, the New York Times reported. The protests grew more violent overnight, as protesters lobbed cobblestones, burned cars, and police launched water canons and tear gas, reports say.
Over 300 people were arrested in the protests, mainly in Paris, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in a radio interview on March 17. “Opposition is legitimate, protests are legitimate but causing mayhem is not,” said Darmanin, according to Reuters.
The outcry came after Macron ordered Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to invoke 49.3, a provision of the French constitution, to pass a controversial pension reform plan before the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, was scheduled to vote on the legislation, according to the Associated Press. The Senate, which has a conservative majority, had adopted the bill in a 194 to 114 vote on Thursday, but reports had found that it was short of a majority in the Assembly, Le Monde reported. The decision is expected to lead to a no-confidence motion for Macron’s government, France 24 reported.
“When a president has no majority in the country, no majority in the National Assembly, he must withdraw his bill,” said Olivier Faure, the head of the Socialist party, according to France 24.
Lawmakers booed, sang La Marseillaise national anthem, and brandished posters reading “It’s no!” as Borne announced the decision in parliament. “We cannot bet on the future of our pensions and this reform is necessary,” French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said.
Provision 49.3 has been used dozens of times since its creation in 1958, although a constitutional reform implemented in 2008 limited its use to a single law per parliamentary session, in addition to finance and social security bills.
President Emmanuel Macron has said the current age of retirement is unsustainable. In France, where the average life expectancy is now 82, people spend about 25 years in retirement, according to OECD data from 2021. Official projections have found that the ratio of workers to retirees is expected to drop to 1.2 in 2070, down from 2.1 in 2000 and 1.7 in 2020.
“People know that yes, on average, you have to work a little longer, all of them, because otherwise we won’t be able to finance our pensions properly,” Macron said in February, per the Associated Press.
Polling has also indicated the vast majority of French people oppose raising the retirement age. An Elabe poll released on March 31 found that 70% opposed an increase. Experts say that it is in part because cherishing life after retirement is deeply embedded in French culture, and that it is seen as a necessary (and earned) reprieve after a life of hard work.
Opposition to the bill has led to strikes that have shuttered schools, halted public transportation, and left piles of trash around the Eiffel tower. Last week, protests swelled with over a million participants—a record, according to the New York Times.
The protests are expected to continue through the weekend. Protesters from the labor union CGT temporarily blocked Paris’ périphérique, a highway circling the city, on Friday. Teachers unions have also called for strikes, which may disrupt the Baccalaureate high school exams, Reuters reported.
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