Macron Government Bypasses France’s National Assembly to Pass Pension Overhaul

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Maneuver to raise retirement age to 64 from 62 heightens tensions with protesters, opposition lawmakers

By guest authors Noemie Bisserbe and Stacy Meichtry from the Wall Street Journal.


PARIS—The government of French President Emmanuel Macron invoked a special provision of France’s constitution Thursday to bypass Parliament and increase the country’s retirement age, an act of defiance that escalated the leader’s standoff with street protesters and opposition lawmakers.

The use of Article 49 of the French constitution allows the Macron government to enact a contentious overhaul of France’s pension system after it struggled to cobble together enough votes in Parliament. But the maneuver comes at a high political price: Protesters and opposition parties that have painted Mr. Macron as an authoritarian now have more ammunition to mobilize the masses.

“We can’t take any chances with the future of our pensions,” said French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, speaking before a rowdy session of the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament. Dozens of lawmakers sang France’s national anthem and heckled Ms. Borne as she invoked Article 49.

France has been gripped by months of demonstrations and paralyzing strikes aimed at forcing Mr. Macron to ditch the overhaul, which raises the country’s retirement age to 64 from 62. Public-sector workers have walked off the job in droves, canceling classes and stalling public transport. Trash has been piling up in the streets of Paris, as garbage collectors have refused to remove the waste until Mr. Macron relents.

Philippe Martinez, head of the far-left CGT union, said there would be no letup in the turmoil if the Macron government invoked Article 49. “This will on the contrary reinvigorate the protest movement, the strikes,” he said.

The failure to put the pension overhaul to a vote shows how Mr. Macron has grown increasingly out of touch with the national mood since he won his first election in 2017. Mr. Macron campaigned for re-election last year on raising the retirement age. He later argued his plan was the only way to preserve France’s pension system without raising taxes or increasing the country’s debt.

The proposal received a frosty reception in the corridors of Parliament and filled the boulevards of Paris with angry protesters.

“I ask myself a very simple question, but with a certain sadness: The Macron of 2017, would he have taken the same decision?” said Gilles Le Gendre, a lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party Renaissance and the former head of the party’s group in the National Assembly.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, immediately called on Mr. Macron to ditch his prime minister, saying it would amount to an “extra slap in the face to the French people” if Ms. Borne remained in office.

National Rally and the NUPES—the left-leaning coalition of French socialists, communists and greens—say they plan to retaliate with no-confidence motions that, if successful, would force his government to resign.

Mr. Macron’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on the standing of his prime minister or the planned no-confidence motions. Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said in September that if a no-confidence vote succeeded, Mr. Macron would dissolve the National Assembly.

The deciding ballots in a no-confidence vote would be cast by the conservative Les Républicains, who failed to muster enough support among their lawmakers to persuade Mr. Macron to put his pension overhaul to a vote in the National Assembly.

The French leader is caught between demographic and geopolitical crosscurrents. Mr. Macron wants to increase spending on its military, which currently stands at 1.9% of gross domestic product, after the war in Ukraine exposed gaps in Europe’s weapons supply.

The government, meanwhile, is spending heavily on financial support for the swelling number of retirees. France spends around 14.5% of its economic output on pensions, compared with 7.5 % in the U.S. and 10.4 % in Germany, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of rich nations.

As people live longer and the population grows older, the number of active workers who fund each pension check is shrinking. France had more than four workers for every retiree in the early 1960s, according to the government. That figure stood at 1.7 in 2020, and it is projected to fall to 1.5 over the next decade, according to an independent panel of economists, lawmakers and union leaders advising the government on pensions.

Mr. Macron no longer has the commanding majority in Parliament that defined his first term in office. Back then, Mr. Macron rewrote France’s rigid laws and abolished its wealth tax with hardly any blowback in Parliament.