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France’s Macron raises retirement age without vote, prompting backlash

March 16, 2023 Updated Thu., March 16, 2023 at 8:54 p.m.

By Rick Noack Washington Post

PARIS – The French government used its executive powers Thursday to raise the retirement age to 64 and avoid a vote on an unpopular bill, outraging lawmakers who could retaliate with a no-confidence motion and immediately sending protesters out onto the streets of Paris and guaranteeing more strikes in the days ahead.

As Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced the decision in the parliament, opposition lawmakers booed and chanted, some of them holding signs reading “No to 64 years.” Two-thirds of the French public have opposed the plans, and within minutes of Borne announcing the law’s adoption, demonstrators assembled near parliament for their ninth day of protests and strikes. One of the country’s biggest unions vowed more mobilization in the coming days, and far-right leader Marine Le Pen and other lawmakers said they were preparing a no-confidence vote.

Such a vote could topple the government led by Borne or damage her standing as prime minister to an extent that may make her replacement inevitable. And while neither of those outcomes would end Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, Thursday’s tumultuous end of weeks of political maneuvering raised broader questions about Macron’s ability to lead the country through his four remaining years in office, analysts said.

“This was a personal mission of Macron,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group. After failing to find a secure parliamentary majority for his plans, “there’s a question about his agency in Europe, there’s a question about his personal authority, and his agency over his own people.”

The French leader, who is 10 months into his second five-year term, has lacked an absolute parliamentary majority since last summer.

While the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, easily backed the law Thursday morning, there had been fierce criticism of the plans on the left and far right in the more powerful lower house, the National Assembly, which had been set to vote on the bill later in the day. Even the backing of some center-right lawmakers who initially appeared largely supportive of Macron’s plans remained unclear. So the government decided to avoid the risk of a humiliating defeat, and circumvent a vote.

Macron has been pushing for changes to the country’s pension system since he was elected in 2017, as a way to shore up the financial position of a graying society and keep France competitive.

“This changes is necessary,” Borne said in Parliament, adding that a select group of lawmakers had previously reached a consensus on the law, and that “we cannot take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate collapse.”

Macron, who has largely stayed out of the parliamentary tug of war over his proposals, did not immediately comment on Thursday.

France has a lower minimum retirement age than many of its European neighbors, where laws similar to the one proposed by Macron have prompted less divisive debates.

Germany, for instance, is preparing for an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67, and lawmakers there have faced little public backlash.

Average life expectancy in France has increased by around three years over the past two decades, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Macron and his allies argue that the retirement age needs to reflect that increase if the country wants to preserve a welfare system that relies on a sufficiently large base of working-age contributors.

The effective labor market exit age of men is almost three years lower in France than the European Union’s average, the OECD says. When accounting for differences in life expectancy, French men can expect to spend about 24 years of their lives in retirement, compared with about 19 years in the United States and across the European Union.

Opponents of an increase in the French retirement age counter that the advantages of workers are the result of hard-won battles with consecutive governments and touch the core of the country’s national identity.

Working conditions in France have deteriorated significantly over the past decades, they say, and the fierce resistance against Macron’s project is also driven by a growing disconnect between the French and their attachment to their jobs. Instead of raising the retirement age, the government should increase salaries and address precarious working conditions among many young and some elderly workers, unions argue.

If implemented, France’s new rules would progressively raise the retirement age, with the new minimum of 64 years expected to be reached by 2030. But the months-long focus on working conditions of older employees may also result in improvements, advocates of the plans say.

Amid mounting concerns over practices of some French companies, which have a reputation for pushing their employees into unemployment just years before reaching the retirement age, the government has promised more scrutiny.

Unsatisfied with such promises, in recent weeks all of France’s key trade unions called for joint strikes for the first time in Macron’s presidency. Strikes have disrupted railway traffic for over a week, and they have resulted in the suspension of flights in and out of the country.

In Paris, mountains of trash bags piled up in the streets in recent days after sanitary workers joined the strike action. By Wednesday, there were some signs that the protests appeared to be running out of steam. Authorities counted fewer than 40,000 protesters in Paris on Wednesday, compared to 80,000 over a week ago.

But the decision to circumvent the parliamentary vote Thursday could not only reignite but also change the nature of the protests.

“There is now the risk of widespread social unrest, protests, strikes – possibly violence,” said Rahman. “The fact that he is now effectively imposing a changes top down, I think, will further reinforce and exacerbate those risks.”

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