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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Macron’s retirement overhaul becomes law of the land

French television showed images of overturned trash cans and small fires in the Odéon neighborhood of central Paris, between the Latin Quarter and the upscale Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood

By Roger Cohen

The French National Assembly rejected a no-confidence motion against the government of President Emmanuel Macron, ensuring that a fiercely contested bill raising the retirement age to 64 from 62 becomes the law of the land.

The motion received 278 votes, nine short of the 287 needed to pass. The close result reflected widespread anger at the overhaul to the pension law, at Macron for his apparent aloofness and at the way the measure was rammed through Parliament last week without a full vote on the bill itself. France’s upper house of Parliament, the Senate, passed the pension bill this month.

A second no-confidence motion, filed by the far-right National Rally, failed Monday as well, with only 94 lawmakers voting in favor.

The change, which Macron has sought since the beginning of his first term in 2017, has provoked two months of demonstrations, intermittent strikes and occasional violence. It has split France, with polls consistently showing two-thirds of the population opposing the overhaul.

In the end, there were just enough votes from the center-right Republicans, who last year proposed raising the retirement age even higher, to 65, to salvage the law and the government led by Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister. The government would have fallen had the censure motion been upheld, obliging Macron either to name a new government or dissolve the National Assembly, or lower house, and call elections.

But information later published by the National Assembly shows that 19 lawmakers from the Republican party voted in favor of the no-confidence motion, far more than expected.

The protests and anger across France seem unlikely to abate in the weeks ahead. They appear certain to mark Macron’s second term, just as the Yellow Vest protest movement marked his first. Behind both movements lurks a resentment of the president’s perceived elitism, compounding anger at the specific measures that sparked the protests.

Before the vote, Charles de Courson, an independent lawmaker belonging to the group that filed the no-confidence motion, told Borne, “You failed to unite, you failed to convince.”

Such was the resistance to the proposed change that rather than putting the pension overhaul to a vote in the National Assembly, as he had insisted he would do, Macron opted for a measure, known as the 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution, that allows certain bills to be passed without a vote but that exposes the government to censure motions such as the one on Monday.

This is the 11th time in less than a year that the government has resorted to the 49.3, leading to a growing feeling that democratic process is being circumvented, even if the measure is legal under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, fashioned to create the all-powerful presidency sought by Charles de Gaulle.

Macron’s decision redoubled anger across the country and reinforced an impression of top-down rule. He declined to meet with labor union leaders in recent weeks, leaving them incensed.

Before the vote, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right National Rally party and a fierce critic of raising the retirement age, told the television network BFMTV, “For months now, the government has been playing with matches in a gas station.” After the vote, Le Pen told reporters that with only nine votes short, the government had “dodged a bullet.”

Speaking at the National Assembly, she said that Macron should still dismiss his prime minister. “Politically, the president of the Republic cannot act as though nothing had happened,” Le Pen said.

The logic of the retirement age change, at a time when people are living longer and most European states have raised retirement to 65 or older, was unpersuasive to many French people fiercely attached to the country’s cherished work-life balance.

They could not see the urgency of the measure at a time of rising inflation and multiple economic pressures stemming from the war in Ukraine. The pension system is not on the brink of bankruptcy, even if its finances over the medium term look parlous.

Many people in France perceived the imposition of a longer working life, albeit still shorter than that of their neighbors, as an attack on the social solidarity at the heart of the French model and a maneuver by the rich to move France closer to the unbridled capitalism they associate with the United States.

But another, quieter France saw things differently. Aurore Bergé, the leader of Macron’s Renaissance party, told the National Assembly that Macron’s pension overhaul “required courage,” because asking the French to work longer is “always harder” than making promises “with money that we don’t have.”

Macron was adamant. He argued that retirement at 62 was untenable as life spans lengthen. The math, over the longer term at least, simply did not add up as the ratio of active workers to the retirees they are supporting through payroll taxes keeps dropping.

“If we do not solve the problem of our retirees, we cannot invest in all the rest,” Macron said last year. “It’s nothing less than a choice of the society we want.”

However, the government’s arithmetic is fiercely contested by labor leaders who argue that there are other solutions, including taxing the country’s millionaires and their dividends.

Now Macron, who cannot stand for reelection in 2027, believes he has laid the foundation for the huge investments in defense, green energy, schools and technology essential to France’s future. But with more than four years of his term remaining, he faces a country more hostile to his rule than ever before.

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