PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday faced intensified protests and a no confidence motion in parliament after pushing through a contentious pension reform without a vote in the lower house.
Despite two months of strikes and some of the biggest protests in decades, Macron’s government on Thursday imposed the bill to hike the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The move sparked angry demonstrations across the country in the evening, with more than 300 people arrested nationwide, according to the interior minister.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Thursday invoking article 49.3 of the constitution to impose the pension overhaul by decree also provoked tumult in parliament and moves to file a motion of no confidence in the government.
The situation presents Macron, who has only made occasional public comments on the matter, with one of his biggest challenges less than one year into his second and final mandate.
On Friday morning, some 200 protesters briefly blocked traffic on the ring road outside the capital.
Soumaya Gentet, 51, a CGT union member from supermarket chain Monoprix, said she was incensed and would continue to protest until the bill was revoked.
“They’re not taking into account what the people want,” she said.
Her colleague Lamia Kerrouzi agreed. “Macron doesn’t give a fig about the people,” she said.
“He doesn’t understand the language of the people. It needs to be repealed.”
In the energy sector, strikers were to halt production at a large refinery by this weekend or Monday at the latest, CGT union representative Eric Sellini said.
Strikers continued to deliver less fuel than normal from several other sites, he added.
Unions have called for another day of mass strikes and protests for next Thursday, branding the government’s move “a complete denial of democracy”.
Macron put the pensions reform, which also seeks to increase the number of years people have to work to receive a full pension, at the centre of his re-election campaign last year.
But the 45-year-old centrist lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the lower-house National Assembly.
“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to nothing,” Borne told parliament as she invoked article 49.3 amid jeers and boos from opposition lawmakers.
The move amounted to an admission the cabinet lacked a majority in the lower house to make the changes, despite appealing to the right-wing opposition Republicans party for support.
Borne has used the controversial constitutional loophole 11 times since becoming head of government last year.
A bill is then considered adopted unless lawmakers vote no confidence in the government.
Several opposition parties, including the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) and far-right National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen, were set to call the no confidence vote by Friday afternoon.
Borne’s cabinet is largely expected to survive, thanks to backing from the Republicans, despite an increasingly febrile political situation.
Le Pen has called Thursday’s cabinet move “a total failure for the government”, while Jean-Luc Melenchon of the LFI urged for “spontaneous rallies across the country”.
Trains, schools, public services and ports have since January been affected by strikes against the proposed reform.
A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has caused about 7,000 tonnes of trash to pile up in the streets, attracting rats and putting off tourists.
Thousands of protesters massed opposite parliament on Thursday evening.
Police used tear gas and water cannon in the evening to clear protesters after a fire was lit in the centre of the historic Place de la Concorde, and similar scenes unfolded across France.
The ensuing unrest saw 310 people arrested around the country, including 258 in Paris, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio on Friday.
“The opposition is legitimate, the protests are legitimate, but wreaking havoc is not,” he said.
An AFP photographer on Friday morning saw damage including a burnt-out public bicycle, shattered shop window, and scorched car in Paris.
According to polls, two-thirds of French people oppose the pension overhaul.
The political implications of forcing through the reform are uncertain.
The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned this week that Macron risked “giving the keys” of the presidency to Le Pen at the next election in 2027, when Macron will be barred from seeking a third term.