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Thousands of people furious with the French government’s plan to raise the retirement age by two years gathered to stage a protest on Thursday, with the demonstrations escalating into clashes with the police and fire-setting after reports emerged that President Emmanuel Macron would ram the reform through without a parliamentary vote.
Inside the National Assembly chamber, where lawmakers had just learned they’d been denied a vote on the measure, equally livid representatives from both sides of the aisle banged on their desks and belted out La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, trying to drown out Prime Minister Élizabeth Borne as she attempted to explain what had just happened—and why.
“We cannot bet on the future of our pensions,” she said from the speaker’s dais, according to CNN. Macron’s deeply unpopular pension bill would raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 and tighten restrictions around granting full pensions before age 67.
“This reform is necessary,” she added, barely audible over the jeers.
Borne gave up after less than 10 minutes, The New York Times reported. Opposition lawmakers streamed out of the chamber to angrily denounce the decision to invoke Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, allowing Macron to avoid a vote in the assembly, where he’d had no guarantee of a majority. He’d invoked the constitutional power in a Cabinet meeting just minutes before the vote had been scheduled to be held.
“Today is the first day of the end of Emmanuel Macron’s term,” Mathild Panot, the leader of the left-wing France Unbowed party, fumed to reporters downstairs.
“The government’s use of the 49.3 procedure reflects the failure of this presidential minority,” Charles de Courson, an independent lawmaker, told the BFMTV news channel. “They are not just a minority in the National Assembly, they are a minority in the whole country. The denial of democracy continues.”
Elsewhere in the throng, Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Rally party, expressed the same sentiment. Later, she tweeted, “After the slap that the Prime Minister just gave the French people, by imposing a reform which they do not want, I think that Élisabeth Borne should go.”
Opposition leaders on both sides suggested that a no-confidence motion would be brought against Macron and his government on Friday. If successful, it would mark the first such case since 1962. Macron previously survived two no-confidence votes over a budget bill similarly forced through under 49.3 last October, four months after his centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority.
Outside and across the river Seine, people had gathered in the Place de la Concorde to demonstrate, waving flags, signs, and balloons amid a generally jovial atmosphere. Students marched and called for a general strike. A group of women danced to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the Times reported, having amended the lyrics slightly: “To the grave for the working class. No to 64 years.” One man sold sandwiches out of the back of his van.
But as night fell, police moved in to clear out the square, and the protests became more chaotic. Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist and former member of the National Assembly, told the crowd at the Place that Macron had “gone over the heads of the will of the people,” according to the Associated Press. A fire was lit in the center of the square as officers in riot gear fired tear gas at the crowds. At least 217 people were arrested, Paris police headquarters said late Thursday, according to Le Monde.
Union leaders vowed to maintain their opposition to the pension reform, a deeply sensitive subject in France, with the Confédération Générale du Travail announcing another national day of strikes and demonstrations next Thursday. It would mark the ninth such day in two months, according to the Times.