PARIS (AP) — France’s Constitutional Council on Friday approved an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 in a victory for President Emmanuel Macron after months of mass protests that have damaged his leadership.
The decision dismayed or enraged critics of the pension plan. Hundreds of union activists and others gathered peacefully in Paris Friday evening before some groups broke off in marches toward the historic Bastille plaza and beyond, setting fires to garbage bins and scooters as police fired tear gas or pushed them back.
Unions and Macron’s political opponents vowed to maintain pressure on the government to withdraw the bill, and activists threatened scattered new protests Saturday.
Macron’s office said he would enact the law in coming days, and he has said he wants it implemented by the end of the year. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said Friday’s decision “marks the end of the institutional and democratic path of this reform,” adding that there was “no victor” in what has turned into a nationwide standoff and France’s worst social unrest in years.
The council rejected some measures in the pension bill, but the higher age was central to Macron’s plan and the target of protesters’ anger. The government argued that the reform is needed to keep the pension system afloat as the population ages; opponents proposed raising taxes on the wealthy or employers instead, and said the changes threaten a hard-won social safety net.
In a separate but related decision, the council rejected a request by left-wing lawmakers to allow for a possible referendum on enshrining 62 as the maximum official retirement age. The council will rule on a second, similar request, next month.
Carl Pfeiffer, a 62-year-old retiree protesting outside City Hall, warned that the Constitutional Council’s decision won’t spell the end of tensions.
The council members “are irresponsible, because the anger that will come right after in the country, it’s their fault,″ he said.
Bartender Lena Cayo, 22, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the decision.
“We are protesting for so many weeks and the government didn’t hear us,” she said. “Workers who have gone on strike or protested the legislation since January are fighting “for their rights, but nothing changes.”
As tensions mounted hours before the decision, Macron invited labor unions to meet with him on Tuesday no matter what the Constitutional Council decision was, his office said. The unions rejected Macron’s invitation, noting that he had refused their previous offers of a meeting, and called for mass new protests on May 1, international workers’ rights day.
Unions have been the organizers of 12 nationwide protests since January and have a critical role in trying to tamp down excessive reactions by protesters. Violence by pockets of ultra-left radicals have marked the otherwise peaceful nationwide marches.
The plan to increase the retirement age was meant to be Macron’s showcase measure in his second term.
The council decision caps months of tumultuous debates in parliament and fervor in the streets.
Spontaneous demonstrations were held around France ahead of the nine-member council’s ruling. Opponents of the pension reform blockaded entry points into some cities, including Rouen in the west and Marseille in the south, slowing or stopping traffic.
The prime minister was interrupted while visiting a supermarket outside Paris by a group of people chanting, “We don’t want it,” referring to the way she skirted the vote by lawmakers to advance the pension reform.
The government’s decision to get around a parliamentary vote in March by using special constitutional powers heightened the fury of the measure’s opponents, as well as their determination. Another group awaited Borne in the parking lot.
Union leaders have said the Constitutional Council’s decisions would be respected, but have vowed to continue protests in an attempt to get Macron to withdraw the measure.
The leader of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, warned that “there will be repercussions.”
Holding out hope to upend the decision, unions and some protesters recalled parallels with a contested 2006 measure about work contracts for youth that sent students, joined by unions, into the streets. That legislation had been pushed through parliament without a vote and given the green light by the Constitutional Council — only to be later scrapped to bring calm to the country.
Far-right lawmaker Marine Le Pen denounced the pension reform as “brutal and unjust.” In a statement, she said that once the reform is put into practice it “will mark the definitive rupture between the French people and Emmanuel Macron.”
Polls have consistently shown that the majority of French citizens are opposed to working two more years before being able to reap pension benefits. The legislation also requires people to work 43 years to receive a full pension, among other changes to the system.
Jade le Deley and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.
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