France's Macron rams through pension reform without vote

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

The move was an admission the government lacked a majority in the National Assembly to pass the legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 after weeks of demonstrations and strikes.

The Senate had adopted the bill earlier Thursday, but misgivings in the ruling party and reluctance by right-wing opposition MPs to side with Macron meant the government faced 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 jeers and boos from the opposition benches who also loudly sang the French national anthem in protest.

Trade unions and political analysts had warned beforehand 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.

"It's a total failure for the government," far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters afterwards. "From the beginning the government fooled itself into thinking it had a majority," she said.

According to polls 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," 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.

- Second mandate -

Trade unions called for further protests and a crowd of thousands gathered spontaneously on the central Place de la Concorde in Paris, on the opposite side of the river Seine from parliament, watched over by riot police.

"Forcing this through by using the 49.3 must lead to a response that is equal to the contempt shown to the people," the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, told AFP. "Protests and strikes must gather pace."

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

"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 pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.

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 social security system.

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

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 former investment banker has pressed ahead.

- Garbage piles -

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

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

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 closer 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 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.

Martinez warned this week that Macron risked "giving the keys" of the presidency to Le Pen at the next election in 2027.