Singing and Banging, French Lawmakers Vow to Stop Pension Change
PARIS — Lawmakers filled the grand chamber of the National Assembly, climbing into the red felt seats that curl in a semicircle around a room that has been the crucible of democratic debate in France since the French Revolution. The tension was palpable.
A bill that would that would extend the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62 had already passed the Senate. Now, the members of the Assembly had just been told they would not be given the chance to vote on the measure. Instead, it would be pushed through in a procedural move permitted by the constitution.
The rebellious left-wing members of France Unbowed burst into rounds of the Marseillaise — the war-song-turned-national-anthem. They held up white paper signs that announced: “64 years, It’s a No.” Across the room, members of the far right National Rally — normally their political enemies, but in this suspended moment, their allies — pounded on their desks.
The noise came to a climax when the president of the Parliament took her lion-armed seat and announced the arrival of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” Ms. Borne began from the speaker’s dais. “If everyone voted according to their conscience and in line with their past positions, we would not be here this afternoon.” But her words were all but drowned out amid all the singing and banging.
Less than ten minutes later, she was gone from the room, followed by blank-faced government ministers and furious opposition lawmakers, who stormed downstairs to denounce the government before an army of outstretched microphones.
It was a scene like few others in modern French politics, one that left viewers whip-lashed and stunned, wondering if they had witnessed a decisive moment that could jeopardize President Emmanuel Macron’s mandate and what would come next.
“Today is the first day of the end of Emmanuel Macron’s term,” Mathilde Panot, the head of France Unbowed in the National Assembly, shouted to a crush of reporters that jammed a marble room downstairs.
Behind another nest of microphones nearby, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, lashed out at the French president. “It’s a total failure for Emmanuel Macron,” she said, with a sly smile.
Opposition parties vowed to bind together and bring the government down with a no-confidence motion that they planned to introduce on Friday. Later, union leaders announced another national day of strikes and protests for next week — the ninth such mobilization in two months.
Still, whether those threats would transform into successful action, forcing the government to backtrack, was far from clear. In recent history only one no-confidence motion has succeeded.
The scene that spilled out of the National Assembly captured both the national mood of anger and frustration, and the uncertainty of what comes next.
People flooded across the Seine into the Place de la Concorde, a busy traffic circle that 230 years ago was named Revolutionary Square. It was here that both King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their heads.
Crowds of students marched in phalanxes, chanting “All together, all together, general strike!” Union members roared in with their vans, topped by giant balloons. Protesters poured in, hoisting signs that read “Democracy is in the Street” and “That’s enough,” in a dense crowd that continued to thicken.
People vented their anger at the government’s use of a special constitutional power to push through the bill without a ballot.
“It really disgusts me,” said Romain Le Riguer, a 20-year-old literature student, who had spontaneously come to the plaza. “For weeks we protested. How can they ignore that? It’s so contemptuous.”
For a brief moment, it looked like the crowd would march back to the National Assembly, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent leftist politician. But Mr. Mélenchon quickly disappeared after a brief face-off with lines of armor-clad riot police officers blocking the bridge.
Protesters were bunched into groups and scattered around the square amid a sea of flags and balloons. A man sold jambon-beurre sandwiches out of a van. A woman handed out chocolate. A group of women called “Les Rosies” led the crowd in a choreographed dance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” They had changed the lyrics to reflect the battle: “To the grave for the working class. No to 64 years.”
The ambience was festive. There were few of the well-oiled protest features, including protest marshals, union leaders holding long banners or demonstrators blowing foghorns.
“Do you know where the protest is?” asked one student to a cluster of union members, who laughed and told him they thought he had arrived.
Many vowed to continue protesting for as long as it takes to pressure the government to repeal the law. “It happened before,” said Isabelle Mollaret, a children’s librarian in the crowd, referring to a wave of demonstrations in 2006 that forced the government to repeal a contested youth-jobs contract.
She held a sign that read, “Macron, you aren’t the boss. Give back the money.”
“We will spontaneously protest all over France and support the workers who are striking and blocking important infrastructure,” said Ms. Mollaret, 47. “We will fight him!”
The specter of the Yellow Vest movement remains heavy in the French consciousness. Four years ago, a group of disgruntled working class protesters vandalized the Arc de Triomphe — visible just up the street from the Place de la Concorde — smashed many nearby storefronts and sparred with riot police, leading to hundreds of arrests and stunning the government.
Whether this outpouring of emotion will grow into a similar movement remains to be seen. Later, protesters set fire to wooden pallets and iron fences on the Place de la Concorde. As night fell, riot police unleashed tear gas and charged the crowd in an effort to disperse it. People scattered, with some small groups rampaging through western Paris, flipping scooters and lighting heaps of uncollected trash on fire.
Already, some protesters were calling for general strikes, pointing to 1995, the year when strikes against a previous pension bill paralyzed France for weeks, forcing the government to abandon its plans.
“We need to block the country, totally,” said Léa Martinez-Comelli, a member of the C.G.T., France’s second biggest union. “Hospitals, schools, garbage, collectors, trains — everything must stop.”
Aurelien Breedenand Tom Nouviancontributed reporting.
Source of data and images: nytimes