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Paris protests as France bypasses parliament on pensions

March 16, 2023

France's government decided to bypass the lower house of parliament with contested pension reforms. The snap decision came moments before a planned vote, sparking fury inside and outside of parliament.

French police officers in riot gear operate during a demonstration on Place de la Concorde, with the French National Assembly building in the background in Paris on March 16, 2023.
Protesters gathered outside parliament to decry the decisionImage: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Police in Paris clashed with protesters on Thursday after President Emmanuel Macron decided to force through his controversial pension reform without calling a vote in France's lower house of parliament. 

Thousands of people protested the move on the streets of Paris and other French cities.

In Paris, police used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters who demonstrated at the Place de la Concorde, outside of parliament, lighting a bonfire. 

Even after they were dispersed, some protesters started fires and damaged shop fronts in side streets. At least 217 people were detained, police said.

Macron used a constitutional power enabling the government to bypass lawmakers.

French government forces through pension reform

The decision was made just a few minutes before the vote was scheduled because the government had no guarantee that the bill would command a majority at the National Assembly.

"We cannot bet on the future of our pensions," French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told parliament as she invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution, facing jeers from the left-wing opposition, which also loudly sang the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, in protest.

A protester throws a cardboard to feed burning pallets during a demonstration at Concorde square near the National Assembly in Paris, Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Thousands gathered at the Place de la Concorde, outside of parliament, lighting a bonfireImage: Thomas Padilla/AP/picture alliance

Angry reactions from far right and left

"It's a total failure for the government," far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters, adding that Borne should resign. "From the beginning the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority," she said.

Members of parliament of the left hold placards and sing the  French national anthem, as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne arrives at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 16, 2023.
The French Parliament's left lawmakers protested the decision inside parliamentImage: PASCAL ROSSIGNOL/REUTERS

"When a president has no majority in the country, no majority in the National Assembly, he must withdraw his bill," said Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure.

Far-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon said the pension reform text had no parliamentary legitimacy. The bill was passed "only by the Senate, neither by the mass of French people, nor by the National Assembly, nor by the unions, nor by the workers' associations: it is a text which has no legitimacy," he said.

"This government is not worthy of our Fifth Republic, of French democracy," said Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party.

Senate approval, National Assembly was more likely to reject

Article 49.3 of the constitution allows the French government to pass a draft law by decree, effectively bypassing lawmakers. The risky move has the potential to trigger a quick no-confidence motion in Macron's government; opposition in parliament can seek to render the new law void by voting the government down within 24 hours of the decree's passage.

Earlier on Thursday, the Senate adopted the bill in a 193-114 vote, a tally that was largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house of parliament favors raising the retirement age. It was the last of several votes on this package of reforms, or very similar ones, amid the attempt to barter a bill through the legislature.

Macron's alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, forcing the government to count on conservative lawmakers to pass the bill. Leftists and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed and conservatives are divided, which made the outcome unpredictable.

Macron considered that the financial and economic risks of inaction on pension reform were too great and that special constitutional powers were needed to push it through, according to French media reports on his briefing to his Cabinet before the decision. 

Mass protests in France over planned pension reforms

Macron's second attempt to fix French pensions

The pension reform bill, seeking, among other things, to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64, is a flagship policy for President Macron. 

He tried and failed to implement similar reforms in his first term, eventually abandoning the plan altogether amid the COVID pandemic. 

Macron's government argues the changes are necessary to keep one of western Europe's most generous pension systems solvent. 

The plans have prompted mass strikes and demonstrations.

dh/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)