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Protesters occupy the Place de la Concorde during a demonstration in Paris on March 17, 2023, the day after the French government pushed a pensions reform using the article 49.3 of the constitution.GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images

The fierce debate in France over pension reform has intensified with an escalation of street protests and a move by lawmakers to bring down the government of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The country has been gripped for months by a standoff over Mr. Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62 by 2030 and increase the length of time it takes to qualify for a full state pension. The President has argued that the reforms are necessary to ensure the pension system remains financially viable, but opponents say the measures are unfair and unnecessary.

On Friday, protesters briefly blocked a highway around Paris, and unions vowed to shut down a major oil refinery. More strikes are planned for next week, and labour leaders have called for a mass rally on Thursday. “The battle continues,” said a statement from the General Confederation of Labour, one of the country’s largest unions.

The turmoil has spread to the National Assembly, where deputies reacted furiously to a decision Thursday by Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to push through the pension reform legislation without a vote.

Ms. Borne used a constitutional provision that allows the government to adopt a bill unilaterally. While the measure has been used dozens of times since its inception in 1958, it has rarely been invoked for such a controversial issue.

Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said about 310 people had been arrested Thursday night as violent protests broke out in several cities after the bill’s adoption.

Opposition MPs have called Ms. Borne’s actions undemocratic, and on Friday several parties introduced no-confidence motions that, if passed, would topple the government and scrap the legislation. Mr. Macron would have to appoint a new prime minister or could dissolve the assembly and call an election.

The government is vulnerable because Mr. Macron’s party, Renaissance, holds the most seats in the assembly but is short of an overall majority.

“This is about preserving our parliamentary democracy, which has been besmirched, and social democracy, which has been scorned,” said independent MP Bertrand Pancher, whose no-confidence motion won the most support among opposition parties.

Opposition MPs have tried for months to bring down Mr. Macron’s government. But all attempts have failed because many MPs have been reluctant to back motions introduced by the far right or far left. Mr. Pancher’s motion has a better chance of succeeding because his group is more centrist.

However, the conservative Republican Party, which has campaigned in the past for a higher retirement age, has expressed a reluctance to bring down the government. Without Republican support the opposition likely won’t have enough votes.

Mr. Macron, who won re-election last year, has staked his political reputation on the pension changes. He tried to push through similar reforms in 2019 but had to abandon them in the face of protests and the pandemic.

The French pension system is complex, as the vast majority of workers rely on the state system for retirement income. Like other countries, France has a pay-as-you-go system funded largely through employment taxes. The full pension is, on average, about 50-per-cent higher than the comparable state pension in Britain, and employees have to contribute for 42 years to receive the maximum benefit, as opposed to 30 years in the U.K.

France’s retirement age, 62, is among the lowest in Europe. It’s 65 years and seven months in Germany, 67 in Italy, and 66 for most workers in the U.K. In Canada, the retirement age is typically 65, although Canada Pension Plan benefits can start at age 60.

Mr. Macron’s government has argued that without the reforms, the country’s pension system will plunge into a deficit of at least €14-billion ($20.5-billion) by 2030. Doing nothing “would lead inevitably to a massive increase in taxes, a reduction in pensions and would pose a threat to our pensions system,” Ms. Borne told reporters when the reforms were announced in January.

A government report on the pension changes said France had 2.1 workers for every pensioner in 2000 but only 1.7 in 2020. By 2070, the figure will fall to 1.2, as people live longer.

The proposed reforms also include increasing the contribution period for a full pension to 43 years and ending special programs that have different retirement ages for rail workers, gas workers and others.

Critics accuse the government of overstating the problem. They argue that any deficit could be covered through higher payroll taxes on upper incomes, limiting inflation protection for benefits or hiking corporate taxes. They also say that making people work longer is unfair to women, who often have to interrupt their careers, and low-skilled employees who tend to start work at a younger age and generally have a lower life expectancy than white-collar professionals.

Even if Mr. Macron succeeds in adopting the reforms, critics say his public standing has been badly damaged. “If this reform is adopted, the anger and the contestation of this reform will not end,” said Laurent Berger, the head of CFDT, one of France’s largest unions.