Decisive day for Macron's pension gamble in tense France

France’s standoff over a bill raising the retirement age is heading toward a climax

Sylvie Corbet
Thursday 16 March 2023 08:13 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


France’s standoff over a bill raising the retirement age heads toward a climax Thursday, either via a parliamentary vote or through a special presidential move to force it through the legislature.

Garbage workers are keeping up their strikes, and students plan to march to the lower house of parliament as opponents of the bill pressure the government to abandon it. Nearly 500,000 people protested around the country Wednesday.

Thursday is a crucial day for President Emmanuel Macron, who is seeking to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 so that workers can pay more money into the system. If he can't get a parliamentary majority in voting, he could risk imposing the unpopular changes unilaterally.

Macron has promoted the pension changes as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive. Unions remained combative late Wednesday, calling on lawmakers to vote against the plan and denouncing the government’s legal shortcuts to move the bill forward as a dangerous “denial of democracy.”

A committee of seven senators and seven National Assembly lawmakers agreed on the final text Wednesday in a closed-door meeting, and a conservative Senate majority is expected to approve it Thursday morning.

It's scheduled to go Thursday afternoon to a vote in the National Assembly, where the situation is more complicated. Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in legislative elections last year, forcing the government to count on conservatives’ votes to pass the bill. Leftists and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed and conservatives are divided, making the outcome unpredictable.

Macron “wishes” to have a vote proceed at the National Assembly, his office said following a Wednesday night strategy session with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and ministers in charge of the bill at the Elysee presidential palace. Yet no firm decision was made and government talks were to continue Thursday morning.

Approval in the National Assembly would give the plan more legitimacy, but rather than face the risk of rejection, Macron could instead use his special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.

Economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe. In Britain on Wednesday, teachers, junior doctors and public transport staff were striking for higher wages to match rising prices. And Spain’s leftist government joined with labor unions to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system by raising social security costs for higher wage earners.

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