French Protesters Take to Streets as Pension Bill Nears Showdown
(Bloomberg) — French unions are holding mass strikes and protests on Wednesday against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age, seeking to put pressure on lawmakers as the parliamentary process reaches its climax.
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The demonstrations coincide with a joint parliamentary committee meeting that will draft a bill for a final vote on Thursday. The reform’s core principle of raising France’s minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, which sparked the backlash, isn’t expected to change.
Emboldened by polls showing broad public opposition to Macron’s plans, labor organizations will lead marches across France’s largest cities with the backing of left-wing political parties, who oppose the bill.
Workers in sectors including railways, public transport, and education are expected to walk out. Airlines were ordered by the aviation authority to cut 20% of flights at Orly airport near Paris.
Fuel deliveries from French refineries, including those owned by TotalEnergies SE and Exxon Mobil Corp., have already been affected for days. In some cities including parts of Paris, striking garbage collectors have left trash to pile up in the streets for the last week.
While the committee, which has a largely pro-government composition, is expected to produce a unified bill relatively smoothly, Thursday’s vote at the National Assembly will be perilous since Macron lost his absolute majority there in elections last year. His government has tried to secure the support of the conservative Republicains party, which has traditionally backed increasing the retirement age. But forecasts indicate a tight count, putting the whole reform at risk of defeat if it goes to a floor vote.
“We are convinced that there is a majority for the text,” Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said on CNews TV. “We will have a majority on Thursday.”
Still, the government could head off a vote if it calculates that the risks of defeat are too high and instead use a constitutional provision known as article 49.3 to bypass parliament. Yet doing so could further stoke the anger of protesters, while also exposing the government to the risk of a no-confidence vote.
Laurent Berger, the head of the CFDT union, urged the government not to use the legislative work-around and said that his union’s support of future strikes depends on how the bill is passed on March 15. “Our stance on the 16th will be different depending on whether it was a vote or a 49.3,” he told RTL radio. “There should be a vote on this.”
Polls suggest a majority of French people oppose the plan despite concessions offered by the government during parliamentary debate and measures to mitigate the impact on women with children and those with long careers.
However, people increasingly expect the pension reform to go ahead irrespective of the backlash. An Elabe poll of 1,003 adults for BFM TV March 9 and 10 showed 78% expect the bill to pass, up 14 points in a week. The most recent march on Saturday rallied the smallest number of people yet.
Macron’s pension reform has proved deeply divisive as critics say changing the age thresholds will unfairly hit the low-skilled and the least wealthy who began working earlier in life. They also say that there are better ways to boost employment among older workers and bring the retirement system into financial balance, including tax increases — which Macron has ruled out.
Without changes to the retirement system, it alone is set to record an annual deficit of as much as 0.8% of annual economic output during the next 10 years, according to France’s Pensions Advisory Council. That will come at a time when the government is also seeking to devote more funds to investment in industry and the green transition.
–With assistance from Vidya Root.
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