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

People across France are anxiously awaiting a court ruling Friday on the legality of controversial legislation to raise the retirement age that has sparked the country’s most significant wave of unrest in years.

The Constitutional Council, France’s highest constitutional authority, is expected to decide whether to approve, tweak or reject the pension change, which would raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government used executive powers to push the bill through Parliament last month without a vote in the lower house, a move that critics decried as presidential overreach and that fueled widespread opposition to the reform.

Protesters have flooded the streets of Paris and other French cities, while striking workers have shut down roads and railways.

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 has so far refused to back down or compromise with unions, even as protests have intensified and come to encompass a broader range of grievances.

Created in 1958 with the advent of the Fifth Republic, the Constitutional Council is an apolitical body with nine members, charged with weighing whether legislation conforms with France’s constitution. It is currently composed of six men and three women, all White and above the age of 60, together known colloquially as “the Wise.” Headed by former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius, the body also has conservative members — including Alain Juppé, the former prime minister who led an earlier attempt at pension reform that prompted mass strikes in 1995.

The court could decide to greenlight the legislation in its entirety, strike down parts of it or reject it completely. In the first two scenarios, the government could then promulgate the law. Macron has said he wishes to implement the overhaul by the end of this year.

The body will also rule on whether to allow a citizens’ referendum put forward by left-wing lawmakers on a proposal to cap the retirement age at 62. If the court approves, campaigners will have to garner signatures from 10 percent of voters — 4.8 million people — in the next nine months. Even then, the referendum must go through a legal process that may not lead ultimately to a vote.

The decisions come as Macron finds himself at the center of political firestorms both at home and abroad. During a trip to China last week, he took a much friendlier tone than the United States and parts of Europe have adopted toward President Xi Jinping. And he raised eyebrows with a remark that it is not in Europe’s interests to take a position on China’s plans for Taiwan and to get “caught up in crises that are not ours.”

Macron’s Taiwan comments anger allies, delight Beijing

The backlash has been fierce, though it is nothing compared to the domestic pressure Macron faces.

Some 380,000 people protested across France on Thursday ahead of the court’s decision, according to Interior Ministry figures cited by French media. That number was down from a peak of almost 1.3 million in March, but it reflected enduring and widespread public anger toward the pension retooling and the government.

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

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.

On Thursday, protesters stormed the Paris headquarters of luxury goods conglomerate LVMH — of which Louis Vuitton and Dior are subsidiaries — calling on the government to tax the rich at higher rates rather than raising the retirement age. Scuffles broke out between police and protesters in cities including Paris, where images showed a phalanx of riot police stationed outside of the Constitutional Council building.

French protesters on April 13 forced their way inside the headquarters of luxury giant LVMH, which owns brands such as Louis Vuitton and Moët. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the demonstrations in recent weeks, 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.

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

Speaking at a news conference during a visit to the Netherlands on Thursday, Macron said he hoped the court’s ruling 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.”

Earlier in his trip, as he gave a speech at a cultural venue in The Hague, Macron was heckled by demonstrators, who shouted, “Where is French democracy?”

Union leaders and opposition lawmakers on the left and right have vowed to protest unless the pension plan is withdrawn. By Friday afternoon, ahead of the decision, scattered protests had already begun in cities including Marseille and Rouen, French media reported.

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