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French parliament debates pension reform as new strike looms

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Macron's pension reform plans have already run into the biggest French protests in over a decade./AFP
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Feb 07, 2023 - 02:25 AM

PARIS, FRANCE — A stormy debate kicked off in France’s parliament on Monday over a highly contested pension reform championed by President Emmanuel Macron, a day ahead of new strikes and mass demonstrations against the plan.

The reform is the flagship domestic policy of Macron’s second and final term in office, with the president determined to implement it despite fierce opposition from the political left and unions, but also the wider public.

At the start of the parliamentary debate, Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt struggled to make himself heard above loud booing and shouting.

“Here we are, even if you don’t want us to be, here we are,” he said.

“Our (pensions) system is structurally in deficit… Doing nothing is not an option.”

Speaker Yael Braun-Pivet urged lawmakers to keep quiet, telling them: “We’re not at a protest, we’re in the assembly”.

Macron’s ruling party lost its overall majority in elections last year, even though it remains the largest faction.

His government under Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wants to pass the legislation with the help of allies on the political right.

The government is also trying to avoid using clause 49.3 of the constitution — an article which allows the automatic adoption of a law without a vote.

Such a move would risk stoking further protests.

Left-wing opponents of the administration filed thousands of amendments ahead of the parliamentary debate beginning.

‘Huge mobilisation’ 

Walkouts and marches are planned for both Tuesday and Saturday, although unions for rail operator SNCF said they would not call for a strike at the weekend, a holiday getaway date in some regions.

Trains and the Paris metro are again expected to see “severe disruptions” Tuesday according to operators, with around one in five flights at Orly airport south of the capital expected to be cancelled.

“We’re counting on there being rallies so that the country’s elected representatives take into account the opinion of citizens,” Philippe Martinez, leader of the hard-left CGT union, told the France 2 broadcaster on Monday.

Last week’s demonstrations brought out 1.3 million people nationwide, according to a police count, while unions claimed more than 2.5 million attendees.

Either way, it marked the largest protest in France since 2010.

With pressure growing, Borne on Sunday offered a key concession to win support from the conservative Republicans party in parliament.

While the reform will set a new retirement age of 64 for most workers — up from 62 — Borne said people who started work aged 20 or 21 will be allowed to leave work a year earlier.

Calling the offer a “band aid”, the head of the CFDT union Laurent Berger said that the move was not “the response to the huge, geographically and professionally diverse mobilisation” that has swept France.

But Republicans chief Eric Ciotti told newspaper Le Parisien that he would back the reform, potentially securing a majority for the government.

Keep seniors working 

After an attempted 2019 pensions reform that was stymied by the coronavirus crisis, the changes mark another step by reformist Macron in aligning France with its EU neighbours — most of which already have higher retirement ages than the proposed 64 years.

He aims to lift the pensions system out of deficit by 2030 by finding around 18 billion euros ($19.5 billion) of annual savings — mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

But while Borne and others have insisted theirs is a fair reform, critics say that women will on average have to wait still longer for retirement than men, as many have interruptions in their careers from childbearing and care responsibilities.

Opponents also say the reform fails to adequately account for people in physically strenuous jobs like builders and doesn’t deal with companies’ reluctance to hire and retain older workers.

Borne said the government would pile pressure on companies to end the practice of letting go of older employees, which leaves many struggling to find work in their final years before pension age.

“Too often, companies stop training and recruiting older people,” Borne told the JDD weekly on Sunday.

“It’s shocking for the employees and it’s a loss to deprive ourselves of their skills.”

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