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

Paris (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Thursday rammed a controversial pension reform through parliament without a vote, risking more turbulence and street protests after a day of high political drama.

The move to use a special constitutional power enabling the government to pass legislation without a vote amounted to an admission that the government lacked a majority to hike the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The Senate had adopted the bill earlier Thursday, but reluctance by right-wing opposition MPs in the National Assembly to side with Macron meant the government faced defeat 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 as she announced the move amid jeers and boos from opposition MPs who also sang the national anthem.

Trade unions and political analysts had warned that adopting the legislation without a vote – by invoking article 49.3 of the constitution – risked radicalising opponents and would undercut the law’s 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. “From the beginning the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority.”

According to polls two thirds of French people oppose the pension overhaul.

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

Some opposition parties including Le Pen’s are set to call a no-confidence vote in the centrist government on Friday, but Borne’s cabinet is expected to survive, thanks to backing from the right-wing Republicans party.

Unions immediately called for another day of mass strikes and protests for next Thursday, calling the government’s move “a complete denial of democracy”.

- ‘Cheated’ -

A crowd of thousands gathered in front of the parliament in the historic Place de la Concorde in central Paris, watched over by riot police.

“I’m outraged by what’s happening. I feel like I’m being cheated as a citizen,” said Laure Cartelier, a 55-year-old schoolteacher who had come to express her outrage. “In a democracy, it should have happened through a vote.”

At around 8pm (1900G), police used tear gas and water canon to clear protesters away after a fire was lit in the centre of the square, close to an Egyptian obelisk that has stood there for close to 200 years.

Several stores were also looted during protests in the southern city of Marseille.

Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think-tank, told AFP that enacting such an important law without a parliament vote risked further antagonising the country and deepening anti-Macron sentiment.

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

“It will give another boost to the protests. It could lead to more pressure on the government,” he said.

Opinion polls showed that roughly eight out of 10 people opposed legislating in this way, while a growing number of people were losing faith in French democracy, he said.

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

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

But he lost his parliamentary majority in June after elections for the National Assembly.

- Garbage piles -

Trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes since January amid some of the biggest protests in decades.

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

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.

The government argues 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.

Trade unions and other critics say the reform will penalise low-income employees 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.

The head of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned this week that Macron risked “giving the keys” of the presidency to Le Pen at the next election in 2027, when Macron will not be allowed to seek a third term under the French constitution.