Macron’s regime is in balance as parliament votes on retirement age


PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron faces a major test of his second term in office on Thursday as lawmakers vote on his controversial plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

The proposals have been met with opposition from trade unions and two-thirds of the French public, sparking eight days of nationwide protests and strikes in recent weeks, and there are no signs of Macron backing down. But the French leader, who is ten months into his second five-year term, lacks an absolute majority in parliament and legislators’ approval of his plans is far from certain.

While the upper house of parliament, the senate, easily supported the bill on Thursday morning, the plans have been fiercely criticized by the left and far right in the more powerful lower house, the national assembly, which will vote on the bill. later on the day. Even the support of some centre-right lawmakers who initially largely supported Macron’s plans is unclear.

At stake is not only one of Macron’s signature projects, but also his ability to run the country more broadly. Citing a government source, French TV network BFM suggested on Wednesday evening that Macron could choose to dissolve parliament if lawmakers vote against the law, leading to snap parliamentary elections.

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne could also try to pass the changes with executive powers – either before today’s vote or, if parliament votes against the bill, at a later date. But in response, lawmakers could then try to overthrow her government with a vote of no confidence. None of these possibilities would end Macron’s presidency, but they could pose a major challenge to his ability to carry out his plans over the next four years.

Macron has been pushing for changes to the country’s pension system since his election in 2017, as a way to strengthen the financial position of an aging society and keep France competitive.

France has a lower minimum retirement age than many of its European neighbors, where laws similar to Macron’s have led to less divisive debate. Germany, for example, is preparing to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67, and lawmakers there have met with little public backlash.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, average life expectancy in France has increased by about three years over the past two decades. Macron and his allies argue that the retirement age should reflect that, if the country is to maintain a social security system that relies on a sufficiently large base of working-age workers.

The effective age at which men leave the labor market in France is nearly three years lower than the European Union average, the OECD says. When differences in life expectancy are taken into account, French men can expect to spend about 24 years of their lives in retirement, compared to about 19 years in the United States and the rest of the European Union.

Opponents of raising France’s retirement age counter that workers’ benefits are the result of hard-fought battles with successive governments and go to the heart of the country’s national identity.

Working conditions in France have deteriorated significantly in recent decades, they say, and fierce opposition to Macron’s project is also driven by a growing rift between the French and their attachment to their jobs. Instead of raising the retirement age, the government should raise wages and address the precarious working conditions of many young and some older workers, unions say.

Striking French workers dispute that they want the right to ‘laziness’

If France’s new rules are implemented, the retirement age will be gradually increased, with the proposed new minimum of 64 expected to be reached by 2030. But the months-long focus on the working conditions of older workers could also lead to improvements, advocates participation in the plans.

Amid growing concerns about the practices of some French companies, which have a reputation for forcing their workers into unemployment just years before reaching retirement age, the government has promised more scrutiny.

Dissatisfied with such promises, all major French trade unions have in recent weeks called for joint strikes for the first time during Macron’s presidency. Strikes have disrupted rail traffic for more than a week and led to the suspension of flights in and out of the country.

In Paris, mountains of garbage bags have piled up in the streets in recent days after sanitation workers joined the strike. But on Wednesday, there were some signs that protests seemed to be gaining steam. Authorities counted fewer than 40,000 demonstrators in Paris on Wednesday, compared to 80,000 more than a week ago.

City of… Garbage? Paris, in the midst of strikes, is drowning in garbage.

Macron dropped an earlier attempt to change the retirement age during his first term in office, following widespread protests in 2019 and 2020 and amid the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This time, however, the stakes are higher. If Macron fails to pass his law on Thursday and then opts for early elections, “there is no guarantee that the presidential majority will emerge strengthened,” said Anne-Charlène Bezzina, an expert on constitutional law.

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