Left-wing oppositions MPs held up signs and jeered Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne as she announced the news

Paris (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday rammed a controversial pension reform through parliament without a vote, deploying a rarely used constitutional power that risks inflaming protests.

The move was an admission that his government lacked a majority in the National Assembly to pass the legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The Senate adopted the bill earlier on Thursday morning, but misgivings in the ruling party and reluctance by right-wing opposition MPs to side with Macron meant the government risked losing a vote in the lower house.

“We can’t take the risk of seeing 175 hours of parliamentary debate come to nothing,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told MPs, shouting through the jeers and boos from the opposition benches who also loudly sang the French national anthem the Marseillaise in protest.

Trade unions and political analysts had warned beforehand that passing the legislation by decree, using the controversial article 49.3 of the constitution, risked radicalising opponents and would deprive the government of democratic legitimacy.

Macron wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 under a flagship reform of his second term

“It’s a total failure for the government,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters afterwards, adding that Borne should resign.

“From the beginning the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority,” she said.

Polls show that two thirds of French people oppose the pension reform.

“When a president has no majority in the country, no majority in the National Assembly, he must withdraw his bill,” said Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure.

The government had also insisted that it did not want to use article 49.3, which is viewed by critics as undemocratic.

The government is set to face a confidence vote in the next 24 hours which could lead it to fall. Le Pen said her far-right party would file such a motion.

- Second mandate -

After trying and failing to push through pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.

Pro-business Macron, 45, has championed pension reform since first winning power in 2017

He defeated Le Pen running on a pro-business platform that promised to lower unemployment and make the French “work more” in order to finance the country’s social security system.

“You cannot play with the future of the country,” he told the cabinet Thursday morning as he justified the move, according to a participant at the meeting.

But political analysts say his mandate is weak and his party lost its parliamentary majority in elections in June which saw the far-right become the biggest opposition party.

Despite warnings from allies about the timing of the pension reform so soon after the Covid-19 pandemic and in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, the 45-year-old has pressed ahead.

The government’s biggest fear has been re-igniting violent anti-government demonstrations, with memories still fresh of the 2018 revolt by so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters who took to the streets to denounce Macron’s policies and governing style.

- Garbage piles -

Trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes over the last six weeks, while some of the biggest protests in decades have taken place.

An estimated 1.28 million people hit the streets on March 7.

A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has also seen around 7,000 tonnes of uncollected trash pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.

Rubbish has piled up in Paris over the last week due to a strike by garbage collectors

The strike has been extended until next Monday, with the prospect of serious public health problems leading to growing calls for authorities to intervene.

Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, said there would be new strikes and protests after Macron’s move and announced unions would meet late Thursday.

The head of the hardline CGT union Philippe Martinez said strikes and protests had to now intensify, adding the forcing through of the law “must find a response in line with this show of contempt towards the people”.

The government has argued that raising the retirement age, scrapping privileges for some public sector workers and toughening criteria for a full pension are needed to prevent major deficits building up.

The change would also bring France into line with its European neighbours, most of which have raised the retirement age to 65 or above.

Trade unions and other critics say the reform will penalise low-income people in manual jobs who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates who are less affected by the changes.

The political implications of forcing through a reform opposed by most of the population are uncertain for Macron and the country at large.

Martinez warned this week that forcing the legislation through without a vote would amount to “giving the keys of the Elysee” to Le Pen for the next presidential election in 2027.