France's Constitutional Council on Friday approved an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, in a victory for President Emmanuel Macron after three months of mass protests over the legislation that has damaged his leadership.
The move threatened to enrage unions and other critics of the pension plan, including protesters gathered in spots around France on Friday evening as the decision came down.
Macron's political opponents vowed to pressure the government to withdraw the bill.
The council rejected some other measures in the pension bill, but the higher age was central to Macron's plan and the target of protesters' anger.
Macron can enact the bill within 15 days.
In a separate but related decision, the council rejected a request by left-wing lawmakers to allow for a possible referendum on enshrining 62 as the maximum official retirement age. The council will rule on a similar request next month.
Security forces stood behind a metal fence erected before the heavily guarded Constitutional Council.
As tensions mounted hours before the decision, Macron invited labour unions to meet with him on Tuesday “whatever the decision by the Constitutional Council,” his office said.
The president did not grant a request last month by unions for a meeting. Unions have been the organisers of 12 nationwide protests since January and have a criticial role in trying to tamp down excessive reactions by protesters.
“The doors of the Elysee (presidential palace) will remain open, without condition, for this dialogue,” Macron's office said. There was no immediate response from unions to the invitation.
The plan to increase the retirement age was meant to be Macron's showcase measure in his second term.
The council decision caps months of tumultuous debates in parliament and fervour in the streets.
Spontaneous demonstrations were held around France ahead of the nine-member council's ruling. Opponents of the pension reform blockaded entry points into some cities, including Rouen in the west or Marseille in the south, slowing or stopping traffic.
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was interrupted while visiting a supermarket outside Paris by a group of people chanting “We don't want it,” referring to the way she skirted the vote by lawmakers to advance the pension reform.
The government's decision to get around a parliamentary vote in March by using special constitutional powers heightened the fury of the measure's opponents, as well as their determination. Another group awaited Borne in the parking lot.
“We're in a democracy, so everyone can express themselves,” the prime minister told news station BFM TV. “My priority is to bring calm” and to address concrete concerns, she said. She went into the store to discuss anti-inflation measures.
The president's drive to increase the retirement age has provoked months of labour strikes and protests. Violence by pockets of ultra-left radicals marked the 12 otherwise peaceful nationwide marches that unions organised since January.
Union leaders have said the body's decisions would be respected. However, eight unions sent a “common declaration” to the Constitutional Council spelling out their position.
The leftist CGT union said Friday it had filed “more precise observations” with the council.
The union said the “the government hijacked parliamentary procedure” by wrapping the pension reform plan into a bill to finance social security, thus allowing it to push the measure through without a vote.
“The Constitutional Council can only censure this brutal and unjustified reform,” the union said.
Unions have vowed to continue protesting to get Macron to withdraw the measure.
“As long as this reform isn't withdrawn, the mobilisation will continue in one form or another,” Sophie Binet, the CGT chief said Thursday.
The leader of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, warned that “there will be repercussions” if the Constitutional Council gives the French government the green light.
Polls have consistently shown that the majority of French citizens are opposed to working two more years before being able to reap pension benefits.
Holding out hope to upend the decision, unions and some protesters recall parallels with a contested 2006 measure about work contracts for youth that sent students, joined by unions, into the streets.
That legislation had been pushed through parliament without a vote and given the green light by the Constitutional Council — only to be later scrapped to bring calm to the country.