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France's government faces a no-confidence vote after Macron raises retirement age

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much can French lawmakers really do now that their president has bypassed them?

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Emmanuel Macron forced a change in his country's retirement system yesterday. He'd been facing a tough vote in parliament, one that led to the street protests we've been describing on this program. So Macron invoked a provision that let him raise France's retirement age on his own with no vote. Lawmakers protested by singing the national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

PFEIFFER: Soon, they hope to go from singing to voting no confidence in their government.

INSKEEP: Reporter Lisa Bryant is covering this in Paris. Hey there, Lisa.

LISA BRYANT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So the president has faced weeks of protests, polls showing his move is unpopular. Why would he act without parliament to do it?

BRYANT: Well, for Macron, it's about the numbers. The pension system is paid for by employment taxes. But demographic changes - in other words, people living longer - and a shrinking workforce threaten insolvency. He says the system can't afford retirement at 62. Most people here are opposed to the reform. And Macron didn't appear to have the votes in the lower house of parliament, especially from the center-right Republican party. So rather than risk a vote, he used a rarely used constitutional lever, Article 49.3, which allows him to enact the reform without a vote of parliament.

INSKEEP: Wow. What was it like when lawmakers realized they'd been cut out of the action?

BRYANT: Well, the scene yesterday in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, was chaotic, deputies yelling, banging on desks. Take a listen here.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

BRYANT: They're yelling at Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who has just announced the government will enact the pension reform without a vote of the assembly. Outside, thousands gathered in Paris to condemn the reform. There were also protests in cities like Marseille. Unions have called for more strikes and protests in the coming days. Opposition parties have called for a vote of no confidence probably on Monday. And if it succeeds, Macron's prime minister and cabinet are ousted. And the pension reform measure is defeated. The government says this will effectively be the vote on the pension plan it denied parliament.

INSKEEP: Well, let's try to get some perspective here. Sixty-two years old as the retirement age, that's on the low side for the United States, where there's a sliding scale. You might retire at 62. You might retire at 70. But how does it compare to other European countries, essentially France's peers?

BRYANT: Well, France is an outlier with such an early retirement age. In much of the rest of Europe, it's 65 and up. The French are fiercely protective of their universal health care and generous pensions. And it's a choice society has made. Work hard, pay high taxes, but also retire at a relatively young age with a high standard of living. So the past two months, there have been hundreds of thousands of people marching against the reform, also a series of nationwide strikes including public transport, refinery workers, teachers, garbage collectors. And in many parts of Paris, the trash hasn't been collected in more than a week. And there are huge piles of garbage in much of the city.

INSKEEP: If I may ask, how is your neighborhood smelling these days?

BRYANT: (Laughter) I am actually lucky. I've got - we have a private collector. It's a poor neighborhood of Paris, and it's gotten private collection. Some of the richer parts of Paris, there's a lot of garbage out there.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow. Interesting contrast - the opposite of what you'd think. Lisa, thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Lisa Bryant. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.