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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron authorized the use of a controversial constitutional maneuver to bypass parliament and impose his deeply unpopular pensions reform, in a move that dealt a significant blow to his leadership.
Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne announced in parliament Thursday afternoon that the government was invoking article 49.3 of the constitution, in what is seen as a nuclear option ahead of what would have been a key vote in the National Assembly. The surprise move allowed the government to push through legislation without submitting it to a parliamentary vote.
Borne faced scenes of anger and unrest in the National Assembly as she made her announcement. Far-left lawmakers belonging to the France Unbowed party booed and chanted the national hymn the Marseillaise as far-right National Rally MPs shouted “Resign! Resign!” The speaker of the house was forced to suspend debates to allow Borne to make her speech.
The prime minister made the case that the reform was “necessary” to salvage France’s generous pensions system.“The bill is not a tepid compromise, but contains advances for those who start work early, and pensions increases for the least well off,” she said amid the chaos. “It’s on this reform that I am prepared to throw my responsibility in the balance,” she added. Speaking after Borne’s speech, far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters the move was a “a personal defeat” for Macron, who had campaigned on this issue during the presidential election.
Macron’s Renaissance party lost its absolute majority in the National Assembly in parliamentary elections last year, but the government was able to pass legislation in recent months with the support of the conservative party Les Républicains. It appears, however, that in the nail-biting run-up to the vote, the government did not have enough support from the conservative party whose vote was crucial to the passage of Macron’s centerpiece reform.
The reform would increase the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62 and extend contributions for a full pension in an effort to balance the accounts of France’s state pensions system. The pensions reform was also a cornerstone of Macron’s bid for re-election last year, and a defeat in parliament on this issue would have wrecked the rest of his tenure.
However, the decision to trigger article 49.3 of the French constitution, which grants the government executive privilege to push through controversial pension reforms without a parliamentary vote, is widely seen as a risky move for Macron as it allows MPs to submit motions of no-confidence within 24 hours. While the government has survived motions of no-confidence in recent months, the stakes are much higher this time around. If a majority of MPs vote in favor of a motion, Borne’s government would be forced to resign.
Bypassing parliament will now almost certainly boost support for French trade unions, that have led nationwide protests and strikes on an almost weekly basis since January.