Macron, Risking Backlash, Pushes Through Law Raising Retirement Age
Lacking parliamentary support, the French president used a special measure to circumvent a vote, a step likely to further enrage opponents.
Reporting from Paris
President Emmanuel Macron, worried that France’s Parliament would not approve a fiercely contested bill raising the retirement age to 64 from 62, opted to ram the legislation through on Thursday without a full parliamentary vote, a decision certain to inflame an already tense confrontation over the measure.
After three meetings on Thursday with Mr. Macron and a last-minute discussion with her cabinet, Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, informed the National Assembly, or lower house, of the government’s decision. She was met by heckling, booing and vociferous chanting of the “Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, and had to wait for several minutes before being able to speak.
“We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions,” Ms. Borne told lawmakers. “The reform is necessary.”
Earlier, Mr. Macron told government ministers, “My interest would have been to go to a vote,” according to the Élysée Palace, “but I consider that at the present time the financial and economic risks are too great.” He added, “One cannot play with the future of the country.”
The risk now for Mr. Macron is that enacting a retirement age of 64 without a full vote in Parliament smacks of the kind of contempt and aloofness of which he has sometimes been accused. The Yellow Vest movement during his first term, an enormous and sustained protest against proposed fuel increases and other measures, marked Mr. Macron. Rule by diktat was not the image he wanted to project during his second term. He has tried hard to project a milder Macron, more ready to listen, less inclined to rule alone.
But the two-month confrontation over his pension plan had already revealed a weakened and more isolated president, with fewer allies whom he could trust.
The Senate, or upper house, approved the bill early Thursday. But the disarray in the lower house occurred because Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party does not hold a parliamentary majority, and even the center-right Republicans, who once pushed for raising the retirement age to 65, were hesitant to give Mr. Macron the support he needed as nationwide protests against the measure grew.
In the end, there was no assurance of enough parliamentary support for the measure — and now there is no assurance of any respite for Mr. Macron.
The decision to avoid a National Assembly vote, which will be regarded by Mr. Macron’s political opponents as antidemocratic even though it is legal, came after two months of major demonstrations and intermittent strikes that revealed the abyss between Mr. Macron, who believes that this “choice of society,” as he once put it, is essential to France’s economic future, and the millions of French people who see the changes as an assault on their way of life.
Mr. Macron, 45, was not prepared to face the acute embarrassment of defeat on an overhaul he had sought since taking office in 2017. A first attempt to alter pensions in 2019 also provoked protests and strikes; it collapsed with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is an extraordinary confession of weakness,” said Marine Le Pen, the leader of the nationalist, extreme-right National Rally party. “It is the expression of the total failure of Emmanuel Macron.” She had the air of a politician with renewed confidence in her future.
The government used a measure, known as the 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution, that allows certain bills to be passed without a vote. Opposition lawmakers now have 24 hours to file a no-confidence motion and have vowed to do so.
If the no-confidence motion is rejected, the bill stands and becomes the law of the land. If the no-confidence motion passes, Mr. Macron’s prime minister and cabinet have to resign and the bill is rejected.
At that point, Mr. Macron could reappoint Ms. Borne or appoint a new prime minister. But Mr. Macron, while he has not expressed it publicly, has left looming a threat to dissolve the National Assembly if a no-confidence motion passes — which would lead to new parliamentary elections.
Still, all of that is considered unlikely. Opposition parties on the left and far right would welcome new elections, but many Republicans — whose leadership has portrayed itself as an opposition party of stability — do not.
Both Mr. Macron and Ms. Borne tried to argue that the process they used was democratic because Parliament will be able to vote, probably on Monday, on the no-confidence motion.
“There will be a vote on the text. It’s foreseen in our institutions, and it’s the no-confidence motion,” Mr. Macron told ministers. Ms. Borne told the National Assembly that, through the no-confidence motion, “parliamentary democracy will have the last word.”
But the appearance of a French democracy weakened through decree, without the National Assembly ever voting on the law, was widespread.
Laurent Berger, the leader of the moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labor union, called the decision to ram through the bill “democratic iniquity.” He added that “the government had demonstrated that it does not have a majority to approve increasing the legal retirement age by two years.”
The government used Article 49.3 of the Constitution several times last year to pass budget bills, but the pension bill is far more contentious and consequential. Because many French people view social solidarity as the core of the national economic model, and because work is widely viewed as a sentence only offset by the pleasures of a retiree’s life, raising the retirement age has become a pivotal test of what society France wants.
The country has appeared split down the middle over the past two months. As they shuttled back and forth Thursday between the National Assembly and the presidential palace, ministers saw mountains of garbage on the streets of Paris, a powerful symbol of recent mayhem. A strike by garbage collectors will continue until at least Monday.
Charles de Courson, an independent centrist lawmaker, said, “The government is not merely a minority in the National Assembly, it is a minority in the entire country. And we are a democracy.”
Convincing French citizens that he respects that democracy will be an arduous task for Mr. Macron over the coming months.
Whether he would have been better off taking the risk of a vote, with a small chance of a humiliating failure, is an open question. Why he regarded raising the retirement age to 64 as a matter of such urgency has been unclear to many people, because even though financial problems for the pension system clearly loom, they are not imminent.
“This government is not worthy of the Fifth Republic,” said Fabien Roussel, the leader of the Communist Party in France. “The brutality with which this reform has been imposed is hard for everyone.”
Mr. Macron has long been convinced that, with people living longer and healthier lives, a state-backed system financing retirement from the age of 62 was untenable. Fewer active workers pay the pensions of a growing number of retirees, who live longer: That equation does not work.
He has viewed raising the retirement age as important both for its financial impact and for its symbolism, a statement of French seriousness that will be part of his legacy.
With the war in Ukraine and acute economic pressures likely to endure through this year and beyond, and spending on defense and energy certain to increase, Mr. Macron sees pension reform as an essential foundation for a resilient France with a balanced budget, at the core of a Europe of greater “strategic autonomy.”
France is an outlier. In Germany, retirement is at 65 years and 7 months. In Italy, it is at 67. Almost everywhere in the European Union, the age of retirement has risen over 65. Mr. Macron has, in effect, sought to address an anomaly — only to discover just how attached the French people are to it.
Pierre Cazeneuve, a Renaissance lawmaker, blamed the Republicans, torn between their belief in the necessity of the proposal and their dislike of Mr. Macron, for the havoc. With their 61 seats added to the 250 held by Renaissance and its two allied centrist parties, the Republicans could have given Mr. Macron a majority, but as the street protests grew, their support dwindled.
“We naïvely believed we could count on them,” Mr. Cazeneuve said.
Ms. Borne, in effect speaking for the silent majority that twice elected Mr. Macron over Ms. Le Pen and prefers him to the extremes of left and right, told the National Assembly: “Because I am attached to our social model, and because I believe in parliamentary democracy, I am engaging my responsibility on your reform, on the text agreed to in this Parliament.”
If the vote of censure passes, she is the one who will lose her job as prime minister. As for Mr. Macron, his term runs until 2027, but, for now, his passage to that date looks distinctly turbulent.
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.