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French govt faces no-confidence votes over pensions fight

March 18, 2023 05:42 PM


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French President Emmanuel Macron's government on Friday faced no-confidence motions in parliament and intensified protests after imposing a contentious pension reform without a vote in the lower house.

The situation presents Macron, who has only made occasional public comments on the matter, with one of his biggest challenges less than one year into his second and final mandate.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Thursday invoked article 49.3 of the constitution to impose the pension overhaul by decree, sparking angry demonstrations nationwide that raged unabated on Friday.

French opposition lawmakers on Friday retaliated by filing motions of no-confidence in the government, hoping to repeal the deeply unpopular law, which will hike the retirement age from 62 to 64.

"The vote on this motion will allow us to get out on top of a deep political crisis," said lawmaker Bertrand Pancher, whose motion was signed by independents and members of the broad left-wing NUPES coalition.

The far-right National Rally (RN) filed a second motion. It was expected to get less backing, but the party said it would also vote for the other motion.

They are likely to be debated in parliament on Monday afternoon, parliamentary sources told AFP.

Borne's government is largely expected to survive any vote. The no-confidence motion would need backing from around half the contingent of the opposition right-wing Republicans, a scenario seen as highly improbable.

- 'Won't give up' -
Across France, fresh protests erupted on Friday, the latest show of widespread opposition to the bill since mid-January.

"We won't give up," said Philippe Melaine, a 49-year-old biology teacher. "There's still hope that the reform can be revoked."

In Paris, thousands of demonstrators gathered for a second night running at the historic Place de la Concorde across the river from parliament, where a large fire burned.

Groups of people threw bottles and fireworks at the security forces, who responded by firing tear gas to try to clear the square. Police said they made 61 arrests.

In the energy sector, CGT union representative Eric Sellini said strikers would halt production at a large refinery by this weekend or Monday.

Strikers continued to deliver less fuel than normal from several other sites, he added.

Dozens of protesters flooded onto the train tracks at the main station in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, an AFP photographer said.

Unions have called for another day of mass strikes and protests for next Thursday, branding the government's move "a complete denial of democracy".

"Changing the government or prime minister will not put out this fire, only withdrawing the reform," said Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union.

- 'Playing with fire' -
Macron put the pensions reform -- which also seeks to increase the number of years people have to work to receive a full pension -- at the centre of his re-election campaign last year.

But the 45-year-old former banker lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the lower-house National Assembly.

Opposition lawmakers jeered and booed as Borne invoked the controversial article 49.3 to ram through the pensions law on Thursday, having failed to ensure a majority.

The influential Le Monde newspaper warned that Macron was "playing with fire".

"If the country slides into a new bout of anger or locks itself into vengeful paralysis, the executive will only have itself to blame," it said in an editorial.

Borne, whose own position is now on the line, has used the contested loophole to bypass a parliament vote 11 times since becoming prime minister last year.

RN figurehead Marine Le Pen, who leads its MPs in parliament, has described Thursday's cabinet move as "a total failure for the government".

- 'Wreaking havoc' -
Trains, schools, public services and ports have since January been disrupted by strikes against the proposed reform.

A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has left about 10,000 tonnes of trash piled up in the streets, according to the mayor's office, attracting rats and putting off tourists.

Unions from national train operator SNCF Friday meanwhile urged workers to continue a rolling strike that has caused major disruption on the network.

Already on Thursday night, police used tear gas to clear demonstrators after a fire was lit at the Place de la Concorde, and similar scenes unfolded across France.

The ensuing unrest saw 310 people arrested around the country, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.

"The opposition is legitimate, the protests are legitimate, but wreaking havoc is not," he said.

According to polls, two-thirds of French people oppose the pensions overhaul.



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