Live updates: Tense pension vote looms in France after large protests

The French Senate on Thursday approved President Emmanuel Macron’s largely unpopular plan to raise the retirement age by two years, paving the way for a decisive, if much more unpredictable, vote in the National Assembly, the lower house, later in the day.

After waves of protests and rolling strikes disrupted public transport and left trash to pile up, all eyes were on the National Assembly, where the vote could be extremely close, ending a two-month standoff between the French government and trade unions testing Mr. Macron’s political agenda.

Most notably, the legislation would raise the age at which most workers can retire with a government pension to 64, from 62, prompting hundreds of thousands of protesters opposed to pension changes to demonstrate in cities from France on Wednesday. Smaller protests were also expected on Thursday.

“We are facing a vote that will determine the next 15 years of our country and the lives of our fellow citizens, a vote for a generation,” Budget Minister Gabriel Attal told the Senate on Thursday. “Do we or do we not want to guarantee the future 20 million retirees that they will be able to count on a funded retirement, so that they can maintain a way of life that they are not ready to sacrifice?

The French government, still unsure whether it had convinced enough lawmakers to pass the bill in the lower house, appeared nervous. Mr Macron twice summoned his main allies for last-minute meetings on Thursday ahead of the vote.

Credit…Thomas Samson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Leaders of the main unions who have spearheaded protests and strikes gathered outside the National Assembly at midday and urged lawmakers to vote against the pensions bill.

For Mr Macron, who has spent much of his time since his re-election last year focusing on diplomatic issues like the war in Ukraine, getting the legislation passed is crucial to his national legacy. He cannot run again in 2027 because the French Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive five-year terms.

“If the overhaul is approved, it means that Macron has new political space to reform,” said Pascal Perrineau, professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. Mr Macron, he said, “will somehow regain his national image as a reformist president”.

Thursday’s parliamentary votes came a day after a small committee of 14 lawmakers from both houses agreed on a joint version of the pensions bill.

The Senate, France’s upper house, was expected to pass the bill because it is controlled by mainstream conservatives who overwhelmingly support the pension overhaul and have already passed a previous version.

For Mr Macron, getting the legislation passed is crucial to his national legacy.Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But in the National Assembly, the lower and most powerful house, Mr. Macron’s party and its allies have only a narrow majority. The outcome of a vote there on Thursday afternoon — or whether there will even be a vote — is still unclear.

At the heart of this uncertainty lies a difficult choice for Mr. Macron.

Is he confident that enough lawmakers will back the bill and let his government go ahead with a vote? This could mitigate criticism that the government acted undemocratically by using every constitutional tool at its disposal to rush the bill through, but it could lead to a crushing defeat.

Or will the government use a legal tool to force through the changes without a vote, guaranteeing passage but fueling anger in the streets? It is a risk at a time when French confidence in political institutions is at its lowest since the Yellow Vest protests of Mr Macron’s first term, according to a recent study.

“The government has a choice between Russian roulette or Big Bertha,” said Bruno Retailleau, a leading senator in the conservative Republican Party, to sum up the dilemma, referring to the famous German howitzer from World War I.

Over the past week, the French media and politicians have been frantically weighing the opinions of individual lawmakers and counting early votes to gauge the bill’s chances in the National Assembly. The mysteries of parliamentary procedures are suddenly in the spotlight. Far-left lawmakers even began live-tweeting the proceedings of the small committee of lawmakers that met on Wednesday.

The deputies left after a committee meeting on Wednesday at the National Assembly in Paris. Credit…Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Such gripping parliamentary drama was rare during Mr Macron’s first term, when his party and allies had a strong majority that backed almost all of his policies and he had little need to cross the aisle or snuggle up. engage in last minute business. .

Mr Macron’s government says that as the ratio of workers to pensioners falls, it must prevent long-term deficits in the pension system, for which workers and employers pay social charges.

Opponents dispute both the urgency and method of Mr Macron’s overhaul, accusing him of chipping away at a cherished right and unfairly burdening blue-collar workers over his refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy.

In addition to raising the statutory retirement age, the bill would abolish special retirement rules that benefit workers in sectors such as energy and transport and increase the number of years that must be contributed to the system to receive a full pension. It would provide for certain exceptions for those who started their career young.

Because Mr. Macron’s party, Renaissance, and its allies no longer enjoy an absolute majority in the National Assembly, they must rely on the Republicans, whose leaders have expressed support for the bill but whose deputies appear more divided. A handful of lawmakers from Mr. Macron’s own party and his allies have also expressed unease with his proposal.

The constitutional tool the government could use to push the bill through — known as 49.3, after the article of the French Constitution from which it stems — allows the government to pass a bill without a vote but exposes him to a motion of censure. If this motion were adopted, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and her ministers would have to resign and the bill would be rejected.

Tear gas was fired at a protest in Nantes as tensions rose across the country ahead of the vote. Credit…Loïc Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

While Mr Macron’s left and far-right opponents would gladly sign a no-confidence motion, most Republican lawmakers, even those who oppose the pensions bill, are reluctant to overthrow the government, which means that such a measure would most likely fail. , leaving the pension measure in place.

Protesters marching in Paris on Wednesday denounced any use of Article 49.3, saying it would be a violation of the democratic process. “If they dare to use 49.3,” a union leader shouted to a booed crowd, “we’ll hold them accountable!”

Ms. Borne used the tactic several times in the fall to enact funding measures, but the government has repeatedly said it wanted to avoid doing so in this case.

While it’s hard to predict the long-term ramifications of Thursday’s vote, Mr. Perrineau, the political analyst, said past protests over pensions have often died down after parliament has had its say. say.

“The reform is unpopular, there is a strong protest movement, public opinion more or less supports it, but then the National Assembly votes and the movement falters,” Perrineau said.

In 2010, for example, President Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in raising the legal retirement age from 60 to 62 despite major street protests.

While polls have consistently shown around two-thirds of French public opinion are against Mr Macron’s pension overhaul, studies have also found that most people believe it will pass.

Catherine Porter And Constant Meheut contributed report.


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