Prime minister Edouard Phillipe said earlier in the day that under Article 49.3 of the constitution the pension changes would not go through the usual process. Instead the measures will automatically pass unless the government is ousted in a no-confidence vote.
Protests immediately began in Paris, Montpellier, Marseille, Dijon, Toulouse, Le Mans, Niort, Grenoble, Metz, Lille, Avignon, Bordeaux and Beziers. In Le Havre demonstrators threw stones at Phillipe’s campaign office, painted slogans on the walls and chanted, “Put him in quarantine”.
Workers at the Paris Opera and the Comedie-Francaise walked out on strike.
“It’s an outrage, we can’t accept this overturning of democracy,” said teacher Agathe on the protest in Bordeaux. “On a Saturday evening the government take away even the chance for a proper debate in the parliament.
The use of 49.3 was agreed in a cabinet meeting that had supposedly been called to discuss combating coronavirus. And it is possible the government may now seek to outlaw protests using the pretext of health concerns.
Already all indoor gatherings of more than 5,000 people have been banned.
Millions of French workers have been fighting president Emmanuel Macron’s assault on pensions since 5 December. A series of mass strikes and demonstrations have seen the most sustained workers’ struggle in France for decades.
But in recent weeks the union leaders have drawn back from sustained and unified resistance. They said the next day of national strikes would not take place until 31 March, after the municipal elections scheduled for 15 and 22 March.
That timetable has been shattered by the government’s use of 49.3. Union leaders know they have to respond more decisively or they will look completely irrelevant.
Philippe Martinez, the general secretary of the CGT union federation, on Saturday announced a new mobilisation of the unions “as of next week".
"The government's attitude is deeply scandalous, and therefore there will be an appropriate response," he said.
The coordinating body of four union federations and the youth organisations is set to meet on Monday.
Already a day of action is planned for 5 March in higher education, major demonstrations on international women’s day, a big day of Yellow Vest protests against police violence on 14 March and rail strikes on 16 March.
But none of these will be enough to stop Macron’s assaults.
Olivier Besancenot, a leading member of the socialist NPA party said the key task is to “strike together and find a way of generalising the strike for several days in a row and not just on an action calendar spread out over time”.
Laurent, a physiotherapist, told Socialist Worker, “We have had enough words from the top of the unions. Their hope of stopping Macron though set piece days of action and amendments won by MPs has now failed. Only a general strike can win.
“And it has to link up with all the other elements of struggle.”
Macron is seeking to divide resistance by launching a campaign against “Islamic separatism”. He hopes this will divert workers from their real enemies and also claw back votes from the fascist Marine Le Pen.
But it will only make Le Pen’s vile Islamophobia more mainstream.
This is another reason why the anti-racist demonstrations of 21 March are so important.
Denis Godard from the Autonomie de Classe socialist group says, “The mobilisation on 21 March takes on a particular importance this year. Beyond the importance in itself of the struggle alongside migrants, whose situation is more and more catastrophic, the whole protest movement is at stake.
“This is because the future turns on what will come to dominate among the majority of the population—class solidarity against capital and the state, which must be internationalist and anti-racist, or support for a strong state on a racist and nationalist basis.”