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French court to rule on the Macron retirement-age hike behind protests

A top French court on Friday approved controversial legislation to raise the retirement age, clearing the way for the change to become law and securing a victory for French President Emmanuel Macron, even as opponents vowed to continue protests that have rocked the country for months.

In its much-anticipated decision, the Constitutional Council, France’s highest constitutional authority, validated a measure to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 — a shift that has sparked the most significant unrest France has seen in years.

Government officials were eager to signal that the ruling should mark not just the resolution of the legal debate, but the public one, too.

“The text has arrived at the end of its democratic process,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne wrote on Twitter in response to the decision. “This evening, there is no winner or loser.”

Combined with another decision by the court Friday that rejected a proposal for a referendum to keep the retirement age at 62, the ruling left little legal recourse for opponents of the reform, analysts said.

Macron has said he wants to implement the overhaul by the end of this year, beginning a gradual process of lifting the retirement age by three months each year until 2030. Starting in 2027, most workers would need to pay into the system for 43 years rather than 42 to receive a full pension.

French riot police on April 14 work to contain protesters in Paris following a court ruling that approved President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform. (Video: Reuters)

But public resistance showed no signs of abating on Friday. In Paris, crowds of demonstrators gathered in front of City Hall and marched through the streets in the wake of the ruling. TV footage showed protesters facing off against riot police in the upscale Marais neighborhood, as dumpsters burned in the background and the air filled with smoke. A police spokesperson told BFM Business, a French outlet, that 112 people were arrested in the city Friday evening.

People also marched in cities including Nantes and Strasbourg, where some radical protesters vandalized banks and smashed bus stops. In Rennes, some demonstrators set fire to the door of a police station, which firefighters extinguished shortly after. Peaceful protesters in Strasbourg held signs reading “64 years? It’s no!” and “France [does not equal] Macronistan.”

Opponents of the pension overhaul, including influential unions, say French workers have battled hard to maintain a lower minimum retirement age than many of its European neighbors — and that this benefit lies at the heart of the social contract in France.

Why French workers are fighting to retire at 62

Macron has portrayed the legislation as an unpopular yet fiscally responsible measure to keep the country’s cherished pension system afloat as life expectancy rises.

His government used executive powers to push the bill through last month without a vote in the lower house of parliament, a move that critics decried as presidential overreach.

But the Constitutional Council — an apolitical body with nine members, together known colloquially as “the Wise” and currently older than 60 — determined that the essential aspects of the legislation were in accordance with the French constitution.

Specifically, the court dismissed opponents’ claims that the government had improperly affixed the pension overhaul to a budget bill, arguing the government “intended to ensure the financial balance” of the pension system and in doing so, “to guarantee its sustainability” in response to greater life expectancy.

It is rare for the Constitutional Council to reject a bill wholesale. Such a move, or a blanket approval, would have been seen as a more activist judicial stance than the body typically takes, said Guillaume Tusseau, a constitutional law expert at Sciences Po. Instead, the court opted for a middle-of-the-road approach that saw it uphold the retirement-age hike while striking down several less-controversial elements of the bill, including provisions for monitoring the workforce and facilitating hiring for older job seekers.

The court also rejected a proposal for a citizens’ referendum put forward by left-wing lawmakers to cap the retirement age at 62. It will consider a second referendum proposal, submitted by opponents of the pension reform, next month. Tusseau said the court is likely to reject it on the same grounds as the first proposal — that it was submitted at a time when the minimum retirement age already stood at 62, and so did not constitute a change.

After the retirement-age increase takes effect, opponents seeking to bring another referendum proposal to the Constitutional Council would need to wait at least a year, he added.

“In the French legal system, there is no avenue to challenge this” ruling, Tusseau said. “The decisions of the Conseil Constitutionnel are final, there is no appeal, and the president now has an obligation to enact the statute.”

Opponents could seek to challenge the legality of the retirement-age measure under international law, he added — but that is unlikely to be successful, since most countries have a higher retirement age than 64 already.

Politically, however, union leaders and opposition politicians hope continued demonstrations could put pressure on the government to reverse course.

“We will continue to use all the means at our disposal to make the government bend,” Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, told FranceInfo after the ruling.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, vowed that “the political fate of the pension reform is not sealed.”

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Macron had said Thursday, before the court ruling, that he hoped it would “clarify the legal questions posed” about the legislation, adding that he would convene a meeting with union representatives afterward, “in a spirit of concord and with the desire to look to the future, whatever decision comes.”

He has invited union leaders for talks Tuesday, according to a source in the presidential administration, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive planning.

“The door of the presidential palace will remain open” for discussions, the source said.

But union leaders rejected that invitation and called for a nationwide demonstration on May 1 — May Day in France, traditionally a day of trade union protest.

“For us, the life of French people is not suspended on the advice of nine people,” Sophie Binet, head of the CGT, one of the main unions protesting the reform, told French media at a demonstration in Paris Friday evening. She urged Macron to reconsider a reform she called “violent and brutal.”

A survey by French pollster Ifop found that 62 percent of French people supported or were sympathetic to this week’s demonstrations and strikes.

Over the course of weeks of protests, the majority of demonstrators have marched peacefully — but some have lit cars or trash cans on fire, smashed bank windows, or thrown projectiles at police.

Police using ‘excessive force’ at France protests, rights groups say

Meanwhile, the liberal use of batons and tear gas by riot police against crowds of seemingly peaceful protesters, along with widespread detentions, have drawn condemnation by international rights groups and reopened a debate about police violence in France.

City bikes and trash bins burn in Paris on April 14 following the Constitutional Council’s approval of President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform. (Video: Reuters)


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