Protests Resume in France After Macron Pushes Through Pension Bill
Opposition parties filed two no-confidence motions against President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Friday after his decision to push a widely unpopular pension bill through Parliament without a full vote, escalating a showdown with protesters and labor unions, who have vowed more strikes.
Mr. Macron’s decision, announced by his prime minister on Thursday during a raucous session in the National Assembly, France’s lower house of Parliament, infuriated opponents of the bill, which would push back the legal age of retirement to 64, from 62.
Overnight, violent demonstrations broke out in several French cities, and protesters returned to the streets on Friday.
In Paris, for the second night in a row, thousands of mostly young protesters converged on the Place de la Concorde, across the River Seine from the National Assembly, chanting slogans like “Macron, you are done, the youth is in the street!”
Danièle Obono, a legislator for the leftist France Unbowed party, said that Mr. Macron had achieved “a Pyrrhic victory, one that continues to cause harm and that is accelerating a crisis instead of ending it.”
“This is a social crisis that has become a democratic crisis,” she said.
Under the rules of the French Constitution, the pension bill will become law unless a no-confidence motion against the government succeeds in the National Assembly. On Friday afternoon, several opposition groups said that they had agreed to back a broad no-confidence motion put forward by a small group of independent lawmakers.
The fragmentation of Mr. Macron’s opposition in Parliament has often prevented it from uniting behind a single motion in the past, and the one filed by the independent lawmakers had a good chance of attracting more support than usual.
“This is about being useful to our country by voting against this unfair and ineffective pension reform,” Bertrand Pancher, the head lawmaker in the independent group, told reporters. “This is about preserving our parliamentary democracy, which has been besmirched, and social democracy, which has been scorned.”
The far-right National Rally party filed its own motion on Friday, though it has also said that its lawmakers would vote for motions filed by others. A vote on both motions is expected in the coming days, most likely on Monday.
Neither motion was seen as very likely to succeed. Only a single no-confidence motion has been approved in France since 1958, when the current Constitution was adopted.
The mainstream conservative Republican party, while divided over support for the pension bill, has portrayed itself as the party of stability and order and is reluctant to topple Mr. Macron’s cabinet. Their support is critical to passage of any motion.
“We will never add chaos to chaos,” Éric Ciotti, the head of the Republicans, said on Thursday.
The Senate, France’s upper house of Parliament, passed the pension bill on Thursday morning. But worried that the highly contentious bill did not have enough support in the lower house, Mr. Macron decided to ram it through.
That has reinvigorated the monthslong protest movement against the retirement overhaul, which also increases the number of years workers have to pay into the system to get a full pension.
“The 49.3 kind of boosted everybody,” Fabien Villedieu, a leader of Sud-Rail, a union of national railway workers, told the BFMTV news channel on Friday, referring to the article of the French Constitution that enabled Mr. Macron to push the bill through without a full vote.
In Paris on Friday, protesters from the C.G.T., or General Confederation of Labor, France’s second-largest labor union, briefly blocked access to the périphérique, the highway that circles the French capital, where many streets are still marred by heaps of trash because of an ongoing garbage collectors’ strike.
France’s main labor unions, who have kept an unusually united front in the showdown with the government, said that they were more determined then ever, and announced that they would organize a ninth day of nationwide protests and strikes on March 23.
The C.G.T. also announced that strikers would shut down an oil refinery in Normandy over the weekend, potentially disrupting fuel deliveries to gas stations, and teachers’ unions said that they would strike next week during an exam period.
That has prompted concerns of longer, more disruptive walkouts. The biggest strikes so far have been focused on single days that were easy for the government, and the public, to weather.
But rolling walkouts, like the garbage collector strike in Paris — the city said on Friday that on its 12th day, there was 10,000 tons of trash piled up in the streets — have hardened the government’s stance, and could do the same to the unions’ response.
France’s interior minister said on Friday that he had asked the Paris police authorities to requisition garbage collectors to clear out the trash, angering unions.
“The government always starts by saying that it respects the right to strike, but it is increasingly questioning that right,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the C.G.T., said on Thursday.
“Right up to the last minute, my ministers and I did everything we could to bring together a majority on this text,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told TF1 television on Thursday. “With the President of the Republic, we wanted to go to a vote.”
Ms. Borne said she was “shocked” by the shouting, chanting and heckling of opposition lawmakers that greeted her in the National Assembly on Thursday and accused them of having no credible pension plan.
“Suggesting that everything can be paid for by debt is not serious,” she said.
Le Monde, one of France’s leading newspapers, wrote in its editorial on Friday that “the lesson for the government and for Emmanuel Macron is stark,” because there were “no reliable allies” for him in a National Assembly “dominated by the extremes,” making the situation “volatile, inflammable and dangerous.”
But by forcing the bill through, Mr. Macron runs the risk of “fostering a persistent bitterness, or even igniting sparks of violence,” the newspaper added.
The violent overnight protests around the country raised worries that opponents of the pension changes might turn to more radical or unpredictable tactics.
At the Place de la Concorde on Friday evening, protesters lit a bonfire and used construction fences to build a barricade across from rows of police cars blocking access to the bridge that leads to the National Assembly.
About 10,000 people had protested there on Thursday, in a mostly peaceful demonstration that took a more violent turn when night fell. Then, riot police cleared out the square, firing water cannons and tear gas at small groups of protesters who threw cobblestones and scattered into surrounding neighborhoods, lighting trash fires as they went. Other cities around France were also rocked by violent demonstrations overnight, including Rennes, Nantes, Lyon and Marseille.
Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, told RTL radio on Friday that over 300 people had been arrested around the country, most of them in Paris.
“Opposition is legitimate, demonstrations are legitimate,” Mr. Darmanin said. “But not chaos.”
Lawmakers opposed to Mr. Macron are exploring other legal avenues for thwarting his pension plans, but it is very uncertain that any would work. Some have started a procedure that enables lawmakers to initiate a referendum — an extremely long and complex process that has never come to fruition before.
Others have vowed to challenge the new pension law, if approved, before the Constitutional Council, a body that reviews legislation to ensure it complies with the French Constitution — mainly on the grounds that the government put the pension changes into a social security budget bill and that some of them are not directly budget related.
But it is unclear how the council would ultimately rule, or which parts of the law it might strike down. So far, the government has expressed confidence that the core of the law would stand.
Still, Boris Vallaud, a top Socialist lawmaker, said at the National Assembly on Thursday that all options were on the table to stop the pension changes from being implemented.
“We will do everything in our power,” he said.
Constant Méheut contributed reporting.
Source of data and images: nytimes