PARIS: French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne used a special procedure to push an unpopular pensions bill through the National Assembly without a vote on Thursday, while left-wing lawmakers shouted and brandished placards opposing the reform.

The move will ensure the bill raising the retirement age by two years to 64 — which the government says is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust — is adopted after weeks of protests and fractious debate.

But it also shows President Emmanuel Macron and his government failed to garner a majority in parliament, in a blow to the centrist president and his ability to win support from other parties for further reforms. Borne was greeted by boos and jeers as she arrived in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, to announce that she would invoke article 49.3 of the constitution to skip a vote on the reform measures.

The session was suspended for two minutes after left-wing lawmakers singing the national anthem prevented Borne from speaking. Some held placards reading “No to 64 years”.

When the session resumed, Borne took the floor but her speech was largely drowned out by boos and chants from opposition members of parliament and shouts of “resignation,” in rare chaotic scenes in the French parliament. “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions, this reform is necessary,” Borne told lawmakers, to explain why she was using the 49.3 procedure.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said Borne should resign. “This last-minute resort to 49.3 is an extraordinary sign of weakness,” she said, adding: “She must go.” Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the hard-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) called the move “a spectacular failure.” “This bill has no parliamentary legitimacy, no legitimacy from the street,” he said at a protest rally outside parliament.

The upper house Senate had given the green light to the bill in the morning as expected, thanks to support from senators from the conservative Les Republicains (LR). But the afternoon vote in the National Assembly was expected to have been a different matter. There, LR lawmakers were split on the issue.

According to a source present at a last-minute meeting at the Elysee, Macron told Borne and others he had wanted to go for a vote.

“But I consider that the financial and economic risks (of the bill being voted down) are too great,” he said.

Opinion polls show a vast majority of voters oppose the pension reform, as do trade unions, who say there are other ways to balance the accounts, including taxing the wealthy more.

Resorting to the measure is likely to further enrage unions, protesters and left-wing opposition parties who say the pension overhaul is unfair and unnecessary.

“This government is not worthy of our Fifth Republic, of French democracy,” Fabien Roussel, head of the French Communist Party, said. Socialist Party head Olivier Faure said earlier on Thursday that such a move could unleash “uncontrollable anger” after weeks of rolling strikes and protests.

Le Pen’s National Rally and Melenchon’s France Insoumise said they would request a vote of no confidence in the government, which will be voted on in the coming days, possibly on Monday.

That is unlikely to pass as most conservative lawmakers would not be expected to back it - unless a surprise alliance of MPs from all sides is formed, from the far-left to the far-right and including the conservatives.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2023

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