Emmanuel Macron failed a critical parliamentary test on Thursday and chose to override lawmakers to pass his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, risking a political crisis and backlash on the streets.
The decision shows the government was unable to convince opposition MPs to back the controversial reform to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, a central promise that President Macron made in his re-election campaign.
Prime minister Élisabeth Borne announced the decision on the floor of the National Assembly after consulting Macron at the Élysée.
“We cannot take the risk to see so many hours of parliamentary work go to waste, or take a bet on the future of our retirement system,” Borne told lawmakers as they shouted her down and sang the national anthem. “This reform is needed.”
Borne triggered the 49.3 clause of the French constitution that will allow her to pass the pensions bill by decree, unless opposition parties unite to overturn the government in a no-confidence motion in the coming days.
Several opposition parties, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally, said they were preparing such motions. If one were supported by a majority, then the government would fall and the law would not pass.
“This is a political crisis,” said Le Pen. “This is a total failure for the government and Emmanuel Macron personally, and the government must be sanctioned. It has lost the confidence of this assembly and the population.”
The Borne government has already survived several no-confidence votes because opposition parties were not united enough to reach a majority.
Nearly three-quarters of the public are opposed to raising the retirement age, according to polls, and millions have turned up at protests, not only in Paris and big cities but also in small towns.
This week, walkouts by bin collectors left 7,000 tonnes of rubbish on the streets of Paris, trains and flights were disrupted, and workers at nuclear power plants dialled down electricity production.
Macron argues that the change is needed to protect the viability of France’s pension system, which relies on current workers to fund payments to retirees, otherwise deficits would balloon as the population ages.
Labour unions remain opposed, claiming that changing age thresholds unfairly hurts women and the least well-off, in particular those who began working early without going to college.
Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT confederation of unions, who had earlier warned Macron against using the 49.3 clause, predicted more backlash in the streets. “There will be fresh protests,” he told AFP. Soon after Borne spoke, several hundred students marched from the Sorbonne to protest in front of the National Assembly.
The travails of the pension reform are a sign of how Macron’s second-term agenda has been complicated by his party losing legislative elections in June. His centrist alliance has 250 MPs so it needs to win over opposition politicians to reach 289 votes, or convince some to abstain to secure a majority.
The failure to pass the pensions bill without resorting to the 49.3 tactic is a blow to the president and raises questions over his ability to win support from other parties for further reforms he has promised on everything from immigration to fighting climate change.
Over the past few months, Borne had courted the conservative Les Républicains, which has long supported raising the retirement age to 65 out of desire to clean up public finances. She reached a deal with LR party leaders, but a rebel faction emerged in their group of 61 MPs, leaving the vote too close to call.
The government has now resorted to using the 49.3 clause 11 times during this parliamentary session, making it the second-most frequent user of the tactic since 1958 when the Fifth Republic began.