April 14. 2024. 6:06

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Protests grow in France as Emmanuel Macron forces through pension reforms

Anger and strikes have escalated in France after President Emmanuel Macron ordered his prime minister to use a special constitutional power that skirts parliament to force through highly unpopular pension system changes.

His Bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 could become law without a democratic majority.

Refinery strikes escalated in France as the interior minister spoke of protesters wreaking havoc across the country and some MPs called for police protection, amid anger at the government pushing through the rise in the pension age.

More than 300 people were arrested across France overnight during spontaneous protests against Mr Macron’s unpopular pensions change.

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The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, warned against what he called the chaos of random, spontaneous street demonstrations. Amid protests in cities from Rennes to Marseilles, 310 people were arrested overnight, including 258 in Paris, he told RTL radio.

“The opposition is legitimate, the protests are legitimate, but wreaking havoc is not,” Mr Darmanin said. He complained of “very difficult demonstrations” and denounced the fact that effigies of Macron, Borne and other ministers were burned at a protest in Dijon. He said public buildings had been targeted.

Mr Macron’s calculated risk on pensions reform on Thursday set off a clamour among politicians, who began singing the national anthem even before prime minister Elisabeth Borne arrived in the lower chamber.

She spoke forcefully over their shouts, acknowledging that Mr Macron’s unilateral move will trigger quick motions of no-confidence in his government. The fury of opposition politicians echoed the anger of citizens and workers’ unions.

Thousands gathered at the Place de la Concorde facing the National Assembly on Thursday, lighting a bonfire. As night fell, police charged the demonstrators in waves to clear the Place.

Small groups of those chased away moved through nearby streets in the neighbourhood setting street fires.

Similar scenes repeated themselves in other cities, from Rennes and Nantes in the east to Lyon and the southern port city of Marseilles, where shop windows and bank fronts were smashed, according to French media.

The unions that have organised strikes and marches since January, leaving Paris reeking in piles of garbage, announced new rallies and protest marches in the days ahead.

Mr Macron has made the proposed pension changes the key priority of his second term, arguing that reform is needed to keep the pension system from diving into deficit as France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.

Mr Macron decided to invoke the special power during a Cabinet meeting at the Élysée presidential palace, just a few minutes before the scheduled vote in France’s lower house of parliament, because he had no guarantee of a majority.

“Today, uncertainty looms” about whether a majority would have voted for the Bill, Ms Borne acknowledged, but she said: “We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions. That reform is necessary.”

Ms Borne prompted boos from the opposition when she said her government is accountable to the parliament. Politicians can try to revoke the changes through no-confidence motions, she said.

The Senate adopted the bill earlier on Thursday in a 193-114 vote, a tally largely expected since the conservative majority of the upper house favoured the changes.

Raising the retirement age will make workers put more money into the system, which the government says is on course to run a deficit.

Mr Macron has promoted the pension changes as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive. The reform also would require 43 years of work to earn a full pension. – Agencies