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French police stand in front of the National Assembly before debates and votes on two motions of no-confidence against the French government, tabled by centrist group Liot and far-right Rassemblement National party, after the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers, in Paris, France, March 20, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron’s government is set to face two no-confidence motions in parliament on Monday over an unpopular pension reform that has sparked violent protests and political uproar.

Macron’s allies are in a minority in the lower house National Assembly, meaning they could be defeated if the opposition unites in sufficient numbers for one of the ballots, which are set for debate from 4 pm (1500 GMT).

A decision to force the pension legislation through the lower-house National Assembly without a vote last Thursday sparked protests over the weekend, calls for more strikes and outrage about a manoeuvre widely seen as undemocratic.

Bringing the government down was “the only way of stopping the social and political crisis in this country,” Charles de Courson, the author of one of the two no-confidence votes and France’s longest-serving MP, told France Inter radio on Monday.

“If we continue like this, no one will control anything. That’s what all the trade union leaders are telling us... that they’re seeing things becoming more radical,” he said.

Government insiders and observers have raised fears that France is again heading for another bout of violent anti-government protests, only a few years after the “Yellow Vest” movement shook Macron’s government and the country.

After a weekend that featured violent clashes in Paris, bins were set alight on a highway in Rennes, northwest France, on Monday morning.

Most analysts expect the government to survive on Monday, thanks to backing from the right-wing opposition Republicans party that controls 61 seats.

But the margin could be tight after a senior Republican lawmaker, Aurelien Pradie, said he would vote against the government because “I think it’s the only way out. We need to move on to something else.”

Low ratings

Macron’s widely disliked campaign pledge to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 - and extending the number of years people must pay into the system to receive a full pension - was passed using the French constitution’s Article 49.3.

The controversial provision means that the bill becomes law unless the government loses a no-confidence vote afterwards.

One was filed by de Courson’s small centrist group Liot, and the other from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally.

Macron broke his silence on Sunday, saying in a statement to AFP that he hopes “the text on pensions can go to the end of its democratic journey with respect for all”.

If the government falls, he would have the option of naming another one or dissolving the National Assembly and calling fresh legislative elections.

A survey on Sunday showed the head of state’s personal rating at its lowest level since the height of the “Yellow Vest” crisis in 2019, with only 28 percent of respondents having a positive view of him.

Republicans leader Eric Ciotti, who has backed the pension reform, has also called on his fellow MPs not to “add chaos to chaos” by voting against the government, but his authority in the party has been severely undermined by rebels.

‘Situation of fear’

Macron has argued that the pension changes are needed to avoid crippling deficits in the coming decades linked to France’s ageing population.

“Those among us who are able will gradually need to work more to finance our social model, which is one of the most generous in the world,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Sunday.

Opponents of the reform say it places an unfair burden on low earners, women and people doing physically wearing jobs. Opinion polls have consistently showed that two thirds of French people oppose the changes.

A total of 169 people were arrested nationwide on Saturday during spontaneous protests, including one that assembled 4,000 in the capital.

Strikes, including by oil refinery workers and Paris rubbish collectors, have continued, with some set to intensify, and another nationwide day of action has been called for Thursday.

If the government survives, many observers expect Macron to replace beleaguered Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to try to reset his image.

The move would be “the least risky and the most likely to give him new momentum,” Bruno Cautres of the Centre for Political Research told AFP.

Calling new elections is seen as unlikely.

“When you’re in this much of a cycle of unpopularity and rejection over a major reform, it’s basically suicidal” to go to the polls, Brice Teinturier, head of the polling firm Ipsos, told AFP

A Harris Interactive survey of over 2,000 people this month suggested that the only winner from a new general election would be the far right, with all other major parties losing ground.