Emmanuel Macron faces a crucial parliamentary test on Thursday over his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, as MPs voted against a backdrop of strikes, uncollected waste and nationwide protests.
Lawmakers are set to decide on a pension reform bill after two months of murky debate, despite government efforts to win support from conservative Les R.épublic
“This reform is necessary, and has been improved through the work of this body,” Prime Minister Elizabeth Bourne said Wednesday. “Our government is fully operational to win majority votes for it in the coming days.”
According to polls, almost three-quarters of people oppose raising the retirement age, and millions of people have joined protests not only in Paris and big cities, but also in smaller towns. This week, a walkout by bin collectors dumped 7,000 tons of garbage on the streets of Paris, disrupted trains and flights, and workers at nuclear power plants reduced electricity production.
The pension reform woes are a sign of how Macron’s second-term agenda has been complicated by his loss of legislative elections in June. His centrist alliance has 250 MPs so he needs to win over opposition politicians to reach 289 votes, or convince some to abstain in order to get a majority.
The president has staked his reformist credentials on pension reform, which would raise the retirement age to 64 and require 43 years of work to qualify for a full pension. Failure risks turning him into a lame duck on domestic affairs and with four years left in his term, he could still lead on foreign policy and on the EU stage.
He has argued that the change is needed to protect the viability of France’s pension system, which relies on current workers to pay retirees. Otherwise, the deficit will increase as the population ages.
Labor unions are staunchly opposed, arguing that changing the age limit unfairly disadvantages women, and especially those who start working early without attending college.
Among the opposition, the left-wing Nupés alliance and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party are also against raising the retirement age and instead call for tax increases to offset the pension deficit.
That left Bourne with little choice but to court Les Républiques, who have long supported raising the retirement age to 65 out of a desire to clean up public finances. Bourne successfully struck a deal with LR party leaders, but then a rebel faction emerged among 61 MPs, leaving the vote very close.
The government has the power to override lawmakers and pass laws by decree under what is known as Article 49.3 of the French constitution, but such a move risks radicalizing a political crisis and street protests.
“We will continue the fight, no matter what,” said hardline CGT union head Philippe Martinez.
If it wants to use the 49.3 trick, the government must use it before the vote in the National Assembly on Thursday afternoon. Triggering it also allows the opposition to respond with a no-confidence motion.
The government has already resorted to using 49.3 ten times during this parliamentary session, making it the second most frequent user of the tactic since 1958 when the Fifth Republic began.
In the Senate Leader, LR Leader Bruno Ritaleau said Bourne faced a difficult choice. “It’s like playing Russian roulette to vote if you don’t know if you have a majority, or you can bring out the big guns with 49.3,” he said on France Inter. “But using 49.3 is better than not passing the amendment at all.”