PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Thursday rammed a controversial pension reform through parliament without a vote, sparking angry protests in Paris and other cities as well as tumult in the legislature.
The move to use a special constitutional power enabling the government to pass legislation without a vote amounted to an admission that the government lacked a majority to hike the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The Senate had adopted the bill earlier Thursday, but reluctance by right-wing opposition MPs in the National Assembly to side with Macron meant the government faced defeat in the lower house.
“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to nothing,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told MPs as she announced the move amid jeers and boos from opposition MPs who also sang the national anthem.
A crowd of thousands gathered in front of the parliament in the historic Place de la Concorde in central Paris, watched over by riot police.
“I’m outraged by what’s happening. I feel like I’m being cheated as a citizen,” said Laure Cartelier, a 55-year-old schoolteacher who had come to express her outrage. “In a democracy, it should have happened through a vote.”
At around 8:00 pm (1900 GMT), police used tear gas and water cannon to clear protesters away after a fire was lit in the centre of the square, close to an Egyptian obelisk that has stood there for close to 200 years.
Some 120 people were arrested on suspicion of seeking to cause damage, Paris police said.
Even after the rally was dispersed, some protesters created fires and caused damage to shop fronts in side streets, AFP reporters said.
Several stores were looted during protests in the southern city of Marseille while clashes between protesters and security forces also erupted in the western cities of Nantes and Rennes as well as Lyon in the southeast, AFP correspondents said.
Trade unions and political analysts had warned that adopting the legislation without a vote — by invoking article 49.3 of the constitution — risked radicalising opponents and would undercut the law’s democratic legitimacy.
“It’s a total failure for the government,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters. “From the beginning the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority.”
According to polls two-thirds of French people oppose the pension overhaul.
“When a president has no majority in the country, no majority in the National Assembly, he must withdraw his bill,” added Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure.
Some opposition parties including Le Pen’s are set to call a no-confidence vote in the centrist government on Friday, but Borne’s cabinet is expected to survive, thanks to backing from the right-wing Republicans party.
Unions immediately called for another day of mass strikes and protests for next Thursday, calling the government’s move “a complete denial of democracy”.
Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think-tank, told AFP that enacting such an important law without a parliament vote risked further antagonising the country and deepening anti-Macron sentiment.
Opinion polls showed that roughly eight out of 10 people opposed legislating in this way, while a growing number of people were losing faith in French democracy, he said.
After trying and failing to push through a pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.
But he lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the National Assembly.
Despite the day of high drama, Macron made no public comment on the matter Thursday.
“You cannot play with the future of the country,” he told a closed-door cabinet meeting Thursday morning as he justified the move, according to a participant.
Trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes since January amid some of the biggest protests in decades.
A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has also seen around 7,000 tonnes of uncollected trash pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.
Images showed that protesters in Paris and other cities took advantage of the situation to set fire to the uncollected trash.
The political implications of forcing through a reform opposed by most of the population are uncertain.
The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned this week that Macron risked “giving the keys” of the presidency to Le Pen at the next election in 2027, when Macron will not be allowed to seek a third term under the French constitution.