Protests Persist in France as Macron’s Pension Law Nears Last Hurdle

Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched across France on Thursday on the eve of a crucial ruling over President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to raise the legal age of retirement to 64, from 62, a step that could pave the way for the measure’s final implementation, even if it does little to dispel persistent popular opposition.

Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul became law last month after he decided to push it through the lower house of Parliament without a vote, galvanizing a monthslong showdown with opposition parties and labor unions that on Thursday were staging their 12th day of nationwide protests and strikes since January.

The unrest that followed Mr. Macron’s decision to bypass a full parliamentary vote has mutated into a less chaotic but still very tense standoff, marked by sporadic violence between the police and protesters, even as some of the latest demonstrations showed signs of losing steam.

According to the French authorities, protests on Thursday attracted about 380,000 people, though labor unions said that the number was one million to 1.5 million. Both the authorities and the unions had estimated that turnout at demonstrations last week was higher.

The two sides have refused to back down, and all eyes are now on the Constitutional Council, which reviews legislation to ensure it conforms to the French Constitution, to see if it will break the stalemate.

The measures in Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul cannot be officially enacted until the nine-member council gives the green light. That includes the most important and most contentious provision: A raise of the age when workers can start collecting a government pension, if not a full one, to 64, from 62. A ruling is expected on Friday.

Mr. Macron’s government, which has expressed confidence in the law, asked for a constitutional review. So did opposition parties, who are challenging the law on procedural grounds, arguing that the government used improper constitutional tools to speed it through Parliament.

Many legal experts predict that the council will strike down some minor measures, such as one forcing companies to publish information about how many senior workers they employ, but not the entire law, something it has done fewer than 20 times since 1959.

Doing so now would be a stunning blow to Mr. Macron, and a stark departure from the body’s usual caution, experts say.

Samy Benzina, a public law professor at the University of Poitiers, said that the council was “very attached to its legal precedent” and “very attentive to the effects of its decisions.”

“I don’t think it wants to play the role of a political arbiter,” he said.

Either way, the ruling may not end the political turmoil over the plan, which has roiled France and kept Mr. Macron from making much headway on other policies.

Bastien François, a political science professor at the University Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, said that the fierceness of the deadlock between Mr. Macron and his opponents had fueled a misplaced expectation that the council would break it.

“If the Constitutional Council strikes down the law, it will be an extremely strong repudiation of the government,” Mr. François said, ushering in an even bigger crisis for Mr. Macron.

But if the law stands, “it won’t change anything for its opponents — it might even infuriate them even more,” Mr. François added.

The size of the protests and the number of strikers in key sectors like transportation and education have fallen recently, but opposition to the pension law remains strong, with surveys consistently indicating that about two-thirds of French people oppose it.

In Paris, one of the main garbage collector unions started a new strike on Thursday, just weeks after ending a previous one that had left tons of trash piled in the city’s streets. Some protesters briefly erected a barricade of trash on Thursday in front of the Constitutional Council building in central Paris, where rows of police officers in riot gear later faced off with chanting demonstrators.

Other protesters also briefly burst into the offices of the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH and marched on the Champs-Élysées with smoke bombs.

“Whatever the case, today clearly isn’t the last step of the mobilization,” said Stéphane Vardon, 49, a railway worker with a bright-red union pin who was protesting near the Place de l’Opéra in the capital.

The unrest even followed Mr. Macron during a trip this week to the Netherlands, where a handful of protesters interrupted a speech he gave in The Hague, while another one, who ran at Mr. Macron outside a university in Amsterdam, was tackled to the ground.

Mr. Macron defended his changes at a news conference in Amsterdam, arguing that it was necessary to balance the French pension system’s finances — an effort his opponents say is not as urgent as he suggests — and to bolster French credibility abroad.

“How do you want me to advocate for increasing strategic autonomy — how do you want me to advocate and convince the Netherlands, Germany and others to issue common debt during the pandemic crisis if I don’t reform France?” Mr. Macron asked.

He said that the Constitutional Council ruling was the final step on a “democratic and constitutional path” and offered to meet with France’s main unions after the decision.

“Our country must continue to go forward, to work, to face the challenges that are ours,” Mr. Macron said.

Labor unions, who had already walked out of a meeting with the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, last week, said they would do the same to Mr. Macron if his overhaul was not up for discussion.

“If it’s to talk about pensions, with great pleasure — otherwise we have better things to do,” Sophie Binet, the head of the Confédération Générale du Travail, France’s second-largest labor union, said of meeting with Mr. Macron.

The Constitutional Council reviews laws to see if they conform to France’s Constitution, either right after they are passed by Parliament, or when questions about a law’s constitutionality are raised by a court during later legal proceedings.

But unlike the Supreme Court in the United States, it is not the court of last appeal, and none of its nine members — appointed for nine years — are judges.

Instead, most are former politicians or high-ranking civil servants who do not always have legal expertise. Some critics say that leads to inevitable conflicts of interest, casting doubt on the council’s impartiality.

“Those who are on the council can judge the work of people who were their colleagues not long ago, sometimes even judge laws that they worked on themselves,” said Lauréline Fontaine, a public and constitutional law professor at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle.

Jacqueline Gourault, one of the council’s members, was one of Mr. Macron’s ministers for much of his first term, Ms. Fontaine noted, while Alain Juppé, another member, is a former prime minister who spearheaded a failed attempt to change the French pension system in the 1990s.

“Given the composition of the council, I have little hope that it will decide to invalidate the law,” said Alessia Malatesta, 26, a video game developer protesting in Paris. “So it’s simple: If the law is partially struck down, we continue the fight; and if it is approved, we continue the fight.”

Opposition parties and some legal experts have argued that the council could strike down the entire law on procedural grounds because the government had used procedures reserved for budget measures to accelerate the parliamentary process.

Those critics say that the government misused tools that are normally used to avoid end-of-year funding gaps, not to pass hugely consequential social laws. But legal experts note that the tools are all legal, and that without a clear-cut case of constitutional infringement, the council would be reluctant to interpret them otherwise.

The council is also expected to rule on the admissibility of a shared initiative referendum — a complex process that has never come to fruition — filed by Mr. Macron’s opponents, who want a nationwide vote barring any extension of the retirement age beyond 62.

It is unclear whether the council will approve that process. Mr. François, the political science professor, said that some protesters could feel muzzled if it does not, prompting anger in much the same way as Mr. Macron’s decision to bypass a full parliamentary vote.

“It would be experienced very badly,” he said.

Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.

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