Emmanuel Macron has threatened to "instantly" dissolve parliament if French MPs block the pension reforms on which he has staked his political legacy.
The threat, which has drawn comparisons to Boris Johnson's proroguing of parliament, came as French schools, trains and businesses were hit on Thursday by the first major call for strikes since Mr Macron’s re-election in April.
The president has argued that getting French people to work longer is crucial to redressing the country’s debt-ridden public finances and having enough funds to invest in education and fighting climate change, among other issues.
After failing to push through a pension bill in his first term, he pledged to enact a new reform in this autumn's budget that would see the retirement age rise from 62 to 65 by 2031.
However, the move met stiff resistance from opposition parties who now wield more power in parliament, where Mr Macron no longer holds an absolute majority.
In a concession after a key meeting at the Elysée on Wednesday night, Mr Macron said he would allow for three months of discussions with labour unions, employers and other political parties before pushing ahead with a new law early 2023.
“We have chosen dialogue and consultation,” Elisabeth Borne, the prime minister, told AFP on Thursday.
However, the central tenet of the reform - pushing back the retirement age by three years - reportedly remains intact and he wants it in force by next summer.
Use of clause would be 'a denial of democracy'
Lacking an absolute majority, Mr Macron has made it clear he could activate a “nuclear" constitutional clause that bypasses a parliamentary vote if he fails to receive sufficient support for the bill.
Opposition groups have warned that use of “clause 49.3” would be a denial of democracy by circumventing debate and would prompt them to call a no-confidence vote.
In that case, Mr Macron told his camp on Thursday night, he would “instantly” dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.
French international relations expert Dominique Moisi said bypassing a parliamentary vote would not be as exceptional as Mr Johnson’s controversial decision to prorogue parliament in 2019. The Prime Minister famously advised the late Queen to suspend the House of Commons for two weeks in a move critics viewed as an unconstitutional bid to avoid scrutiny of the Government's Brexit plans.
“But it would be on an issue that the French Left has made highly symbolic so it would be seen as a provocation," Mr Moisi said. "The Left, and to some extent the far-Right, would argue it would bring the yellow vests to the streets and make life miserable in France. Their bet is that Macron won’t dare to use 49.3.”
'Vital for Macron to prove he was no lame duck'
Reforming France's complex and costly pension system was a key electoral promise when Mr Macron first came to power in 2017. But his radical proposals to end generous “special regimes”, which allowed some state workers to retire as early as 50, and replace it with a points-based system, infuriated the unions.
After weeks of protests and transport strikes, Mr Macron put the reform on hold as he ordered France into Covid lockdown in early 2020.
Against the backdrop of rising living and energy costs, opposition to pension reform remains strong.
An IFOP poll published earlier this month found that 55 per cent of respondents were against Mr Macron kickstarting his pension reform drive this autumn.
But an unnamed minister told Le Parisien it was vital Mr Macron pushed ahead with reforms on pension but also welfare benefits to prove he was no lame duck.
“If (he) manages to adopt all these plans in the coming weeks, it will put an end to claims he’s incapable of doing the slightest reform,” the minister was cited as saying. “It will open the path for a year or two of calm for the government,” he predicted.