The French government has pushed through a highly controversial pension reform bill that will increase the retirement age from 62 to 64, despite weeks-long protests and strikes across the country. The move is likely to inflame tensions between the government and labor unions, who have been leading the protests.
French President Emmanuel Macron will trigger special constitutional powers to enact the proposed bill after it passed the French Senate earlier on Thursday. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne made the announcement in the National Assembly, which had not yet voted on the proposal. Borne defended the decision, saying that the reform was necessary to ensure the sustainability of the pension system's finances.
However, labor leaders in France have called for new demonstrations following Borne's announcement, with several thousand people converging at Paris' Place de la Concorde and in several other cities in France on Thursday evening. The head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, tweeted that "By resorting to [constitutional article] 49.3, the government demonstrates that it does not have a majority to approve the two-year postponement of the legal retirement age." Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT trade union, also called for more strikes and protests.
Massive protests have been held regularly throughout France since mid-January, with millions turning out to voice their opposition to the government's plan. Mass strikes have hit transport and education, while in the capital Paris uncollected garbage has been piling in the streets.
The pension reform bill has been a highly sensitive issue in France, where the right to retire on a full pension at 62 is deeply cherished. However, with one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialized world, France also spends more than most other countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The government has argued that reform is necessary to keep the pension system's finances out of the red in the coming years. "The aim is to balance the accounts without raising taxes or cutting pensions. Various options are on the table, but all include raising the retirement age," government spokesman Olivier Veran told journalists in January, according to Reuters.
The move to trigger special constitutional powers to pass the bill is likely to be seen by many as an affront to democracy and an attempt to silence dissenting voices. The use of the constitutional article 49.3 allows the government to bypass a parliamentary vote on the bill, effectively forcing it through without the need for majority support.
The decision has been met with criticism from both opposition politicians and labor unions, with Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, calling for the prime minister to step down. "After the slap that the Prime Minister just gave the French people, by imposing a reform which they do not want, I think that Elisabeth Borne should go," tweeted Le Pen on Thursday.
The fallout from the decision is likely to be felt for some time, with further protests and strikes expected across the country in the coming days and weeks. The government's decision to push through the pension reform bill is a risky move, and it remains to be seen how it will be received by the French people.