Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

Core of Macron’s Pension Plan Clears Key Legal Test as Protesters Fume

President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to increase the legal retirement age in France got constitutional approval on Friday, clearing the way for the measure to be gradually introduced in the fall but doing little to quell the seething popular anger against it.

In a highly anticipated ruling, France’s Constitutional Council, which reviews legislation to ensure it conforms to the Constitution, struck down parts of the new law, but upheld its core — raising the age when workers can start collecting a government pension to 64, from 62.

“The text has reached the end of its democratic process,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said on Twitter after the ruling. “Tonight, there is no winner and no loser.”

Most opponents to the overhaul had not argued that raising the age was itself unconstitutional; instead, they accused the government of misusing legal tools to cut debates short and ram the changes through Parliament.

But the council disagreed, arguing in a statement that while “the combined use” of those tools was unusual, it did not make the legislative process “contrary to the Constitution.”

The ruling will come as a relief to Mr. Macron after months of protests and strikes that had turned into a bitter stalemate with the labor unions that vehemently oppose the law.

Mr. Macron has staked much of his second-term legacy on raising the retirement age, despite its widespread unpopularity, and he will now be eager to put the matter behind him.

But few expect the council’s decision to put a definitive end to the intense political and social turmoil that the pension overhaul kindled, especially since Mr. Macron decided to bypass a full vote to get it through Parliament, triggering a no-confidence vote that his cabinet barely survived.

For labor unions, most opposition parties and many French people, the retirement age increase — constitutional or not — is simply unacceptable, and many have vowed to continue challenging it.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a prominent leftist politician, said on Twitter that the ruling showed the council was “more attentive to the needs of the presidential monarchy than to those of the sovereign people” — a swipe at Mr. Macron, who has struggled to shake off the image of an aloof and out-of-touch leader.

“The struggle continues and must gather its forces,” Mr. Mélenchon added.

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Rally, said in a statement that enacting the pension changes would “mark the definitive break between the French people and Emmanuel Macron.”

In the ruling, which cannot be appealed, the nine-member council struck down what it said were legislative riders — six measures unrelated to budgetary matters and therefore deemed unfit to feature in a budget bill.

Those included a provision that would force big companies to disclose how many older workers they employ, and another that would have created a special contract intended to reduce unemployment among older workers.

On Friday, before the council had ruled, Mr. Macron invited the labor unions to meet next week, though the unions have shown little appetite for talks unless the pension plan is scrapped.

Some protests in recent weeks have turned violent and have been met by a heavy-handed police response.

The authorities had banned demonstrations outside the Constitutional Council in central Paris, and police officers in riot gear blocked off a street leading to the building with barriers and vans on Friday.

Thousands of protesters gathered instead in front of City Hall under a light drizzle. Few seemed surprised by the ruling.

“To be honest, we weren’t expecting much from the Constitutional Council,” said Pablo Guerrero, a 62-year-old tech specialist sheltering under a rainbow umbrella.

“We can only hope that this decision will give a boost to the protest movement,” he added. A similar thing happened earlier in the process, when Mr. Macron’s decision to bypass a vote in the lower house of Parliament prompted days of wild unrest.

The ruling came a day after hundreds of thousands of protesters once again took to the streets to denounce the overhaul. While the size of the demonstrations and the number of workers taking part in strikes had dwindled somewhat in recent weeks, the turnout has still been notable.

Opponents of the law argued that Mr. Macron had sped the pension overhaul through Parliament by putting it in a social security bill, which allowed the government to use a series of constitutional tools to curtail debate by lawmakers.

Those tools were designed to avoid end-of-year funding gaps, not to pass hugely consequential social laws, critics argued. In their eyes, that was enough for the council to reject the whole law.

Unlike the Supreme Court in the United States, the Constitutional Council is not at the top of the court system in France, and none of its members are judges.

Most are former politicians or high-ranking civil servants who do not always have legal expertise; the council’s discussions and votes are not made public, and there is no dissenting opinion. That lack of transparency has fueled criticism that the council cannot be impartial and tends to side with the executive branch.

The current president of the council is Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister. Other members include Jacqueline Gourault, who was one of Mr. Macron’s ministers for much of his first term; and Alain Juppé, a former conservative prime minister who spearheaded a failed attempt to change the French pension system in the 1990s.

“These are people who have political experience and who know the consequences their decisions can have,” said Bastien François, a political science professor at the University Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Former ministers and prime ministers, he noted, might not want “to see the emperor without his clothes” by fully rejecting the president’s plans.

Mr. Macron has until the end of the month to officially enact the law, minus the provisions that were scrapped by the council. Starting in September, the law gradually lifts the legal age when workers can start collecting a pension by three months every year until it reaches 64 in 2030. It also accelerates a previous change that increased the number of years that workers must pay into the system to get a full pension.

But opponents are hanging on to the hope that continued pressure on Mr. Macron and his government could still force him to backtrack. There is precedent: In 2006, rocked by enormous street protests, the French government never implemented a contested youth-jobs contract even though it had already become law.

Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.

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