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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Core of Macron’s pension plan clears key legal test as protesters fume

A rally outside City Hall in Paris on Friday to protest the pension overhaul. Few expect the Constitutional Council’s decision to put an end to the intense political and social turmoil that the government’s plan kindled.

By Aurelien Breeden

President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to increase the legal retirement age in France was approved by the country’s Constitutional Council late last week, clearing the way for the measure to be gradually introduced in the fall but doing little to quell the seething popular anger against it.

In a highly anticipated ruling, the council, which reviews legislation to ensure it conforms to the constitution, struck down parts of Macron’s pension overhaul, but upheld its core — raising the age when workers can start collecting a government pension, albeit not a full one, to 64, from 62.

“The text has reached the end of its democratic process,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said on Twitter after the ruling. “Tonight, there is no winner and no loser.”

Most opponents of the law had not argued that raising the pension age was itself unconstitutional; instead, they accused the government of misusing legal tools to cut debates short and ram the changes through Parliament, mainly by putting the pension changes into a social security budget bill.

Those tools were designed to avoid end-of-year funding gaps, not to pass hugely consequential social laws, critics argued.

But the council disagreed, saying in a statement that while “the combined use” of those tools was “unusual,” it was not unconstitutional.

The ruling will come as a relief to Macron after months of protests and strikes that had turned into a bitter stalemate with the labor unions that vehemently oppose the law.

He has staked much of his second-term legacy on raising the retirement age, despite its widespread unpopularity, and he will now be eager to put the matter behind him.

But few expect the council’s decision to put a definitive end to the intense political and social turmoil that the pension overhaul kindled, especially since Macron decided to bypass a full vote to get it through Parliament, triggering a no-confidence vote that his Cabinet barely survived.

For labor unions, most opposition parties and many French people, the retirement age increase — constitutional or not — is simply unacceptable, and many have vowed to continue challenging it.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent leftist politician, said on Twitter that the ruling showed the council was “more attentive to the needs of the presidential monarchy than to those of the sovereign people” — a swipe at Macron, who has struggled to shake off the image of an aloof and out-of-touch leader.

“The struggle continues and must gather its forces,” Mélenchon added.

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Rally, said in a statement that enacting the pension changes would “mark the definitive break between the French people and Emmanuel Macron.”

In the ruling, which cannot be appealed, the nine-member council struck down what it said were legislative riders — six measures unrelated to budgetary matters and therefore deemed unfit to feature in a budget bill.

Those included a provision that would force big companies to disclose how many older workers they employ, and another that would have created a special contract intended to reduce unemployment among older workers.

On Friday, Macron invited the labor unions to meet next week, but the unions quickly refused.

In a statement, they lamented that many of the provisions struck down by the council had been added to soften the blow of the age increase, though the government can still put them into a separate bill that would then have to undergo the usual parliamentary process.

“The law is even more unbalanced and violent than before,” Sophie Binet, the head of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest labor union, told reporters in Paris.

The unions urged Macron not to enact the retirement age increase and said that they would not meet with him until after May 1 at the earliest — when they hope to organize widespread Labor Day demonstrations.

The ruling came a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters once again took to the streets to denounce the overhaul. While the size of the demonstrations and the number of workers taking part in strikes had dwindled somewhat, the turnout has still been notable.

Some protests in recent weeks have turned violent and have been met by a heavy-handed police response.

The authorities had banned demonstrations outside the Constitutional Council’s offices in central Paris, and police officers in riot gear on Friday blocked off a street leading to the building with barriers and vans.

Thousands of protesters gathered in cities around France before the ruling; in Paris, they assembled in front of City Hall under a light drizzle and booed when news of the ruling broke, chanting, “Constitutional or not, we don’t want this law.”

Few seemed surprised.

“To be honest, we weren’t expecting much,” said Pablo Guerrero, a 62-year-old tech specialist sheltering under a rainbow umbrella.

“We can only hope that this decision will give a boost to the protest movement,” he added. A similar reaction happened last month, when Macron’s decision to bypass a vote in the lower house of Parliament prompted days of wild unrest.

Similar scenes played out on Friday evening in several French cities, as protesters toppled trash cans, started small blazes, and were chased by police officers wielding batons and tear gas. In Rennes, demonstrators briefly set fire to the entrance to a police station.

Unlike the Supreme Court in the United States, the Constitutional Council is not at the top of the court system in France, and none of its members are judges.

Most are former politicians or high-ranking civil servants who do not always have legal expertise; the council’s discussions and votes are not made public, and there is no dissenting opinion. That lack of transparency has fueled criticism that the council cannot be impartial and tends to side with the executive branch.

The current president of the council is Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister. Other members include one of Macron’s former ministers; and Alain Juppé, a former conservative prime minister whose own attempt to change the French pension system failed in the 1990s.

“These are people who have political experience and who know the consequences their decisions can have,” said Bastien François, a political science professor at the University Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Former ministers and prime ministers, he noted, might not want “to see the emperor without his clothes” by fully rejecting the president’s plans.

Macron has until the end of the month to officially enact the law, minus the provisions that were scrapped by the council. But he could act much faster.

Starting in September, the law gradually lifts the legal age when workers can start collecting a pension by three months every year until it reaches 64 in 2030, while also extending rules allowing those who begin working at younger ages to retire earlier.

It also increases the number of years that workers must pay into the system to get a full pension, abolishes special pension rules that benefited workers in sectors like energy and transportation and increases some smaller pensions.

Opponents are hanging on to the hope that continued pressure could still force Macron to backtrack. There is precedent: In 2006, rocked by enormous street protests, the French government never implemented a contested youth-jobs contract even though it had already become law.

On Friday, the council also rejected a request for a special type of referendum that had been filed by Macron’s opponents, who wanted a nationwide vote on limiting the retirement age to 62.

But that would have been a long and complex process — involving the collection of signatures of at least 10% of voters, or roughly 4.8 million people, over nine months — and one that does not automatically end in a referendum. Known as shared initiative referendums, such procedures have never come to fruition in France before.

The council is expected to rule on a second, nearly identical request in May.

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