- By Hugh Schofield and Robert Plummer
- BBC News, Paris and London
Police in Paris clashed with protesters after the French government decided to pass pension reforms without a vote in parliament.
Crowds converged on Place de la Concorde in response to the raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The plans had led to two months of heated political debate and strikes.
Finally, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne invoked Article 49:3 of the constitution – allowing the government to avoid a vote in the General Assembly.
The decision was taken minutes before MPs were due to vote on the controversial bill, as there was no guarantee of a majority.
The move sparked anger among opposition politicians. Many mocked the prime minister, chanted La Marseillaise and held protest signs in parliament.
A motion of no confidence will be filed against President Emmanuel Macron’s government, far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen has suggested.
Leader of the left-wing party La France Insoumise (LFI), Mathilde Panot, tweeted that Macron had plunged the country into a government crisis, without parliamentary or popular legitimacy.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other French cities to reject the move, singing the national anthem and waving union flags.
Some protesters clashed with police as night fell. A fire was lit in the middle of the Place de la Concorde and police with shields and batons fired tear gas and moved to clear the square.
By nightfall, 120 people had been arrested, Paris police told AFP news agency.
But unions vowed to maintain their opposition to the pension changes, with the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) saying another day of strikes and demonstrations was planned for Thursday, March 23.
The constitutional process that has sparked all this anger may sound obscure, but it’s a big part of the political vocabulary in France.
Although Mr Macron was re-elected last year on a platform of pension reform, his ruling coalition does not have a majority in the Assembly and would have needed support from the Republican Party to pass the pension changes.
Macron’s renaissance party officials spent the morning desperately whipping up members in an attempt to pass their bill.
They knew that some of their MPs could vote against or abstain, faced with the clear unpopularity of the bill, so they resorted to special constitutional powers.
But when a government invokes the 49:3, it can be sure that it will immediately be accused of violating the will of the people.
In fact, it has been used exactly 100 times in the 60+ years of the Fifth Republic, and by governments of all shades.
It is clearly used more often by governments that do not have a built-in majority in parliament, such as that of the socialist Michel Rocard in the 1980s and that of Élisabeth Borne today.
Indeed, she has used it several times, but those occasions have been for public finance bills that have been less controversial.
Using the procedure is a way to avoid a possible loss of vote, but the downside for the government is that the opposition parties can directly table a vote of no confidence.
If these are voted through, the government will fall. That is now a theoretical possibility, but unlikely, as it would mean that the far right, the left and much of the conservative opposition would all come together.
The dispute again makes France seem unreformable. Compared to other countries in Europe, the change in the retirement age is far from dramatic.
But the bill has been regularly described by opponents as “brutal”, “inhumane” and “degrading”.
Morale in France is low and getting lower, and retirement is seen as a bright spot in the future. But many feel that this is a rich man’s reign that takes away even that.