French parliament debates pension reform as new strike looms

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.

French parliament debates pension reform as new strike looms
French Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt speaks during the debate regarding the draft law on pension system reform at the National Assembly in Paris, on February 6, 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

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.

READ MORE: LATEST: How Paris transport will be hit by Tuesday’s pension strikes

“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 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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OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

The French President's new plan for a green-ish future reveals the ecological conundrum France faces and that Macron is rightly worried of the danger of pushing voters towards Marine le Pen, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

President Emmanuel Macron’s much delayed statement on Monday on planning for an ecologically-friendly 21st century was a curious mixture of courage and evasion.

In comparison with the UK government’s recent lurch towards climate scepticism-lite, Macron boldly confronted the threats, challenges and opportunities of the next decade.

READ MORE: Heat pumps and suburban trains: What’s Macron’s climate plan for France?

In comparison to a rupture with the past demanded by green activists – and some in his own government – Macron was cautious and vague.

There would, he said, be no refuge in the climate “denialism”, increasingly promoted by the Right and Far Right. Nor would there be the “cure” (shock-treatment) of reduced economic activity, as prescribed by the Greens.

Instead, Macron said, there would be a “French-style ecology”, which would increase “sovereignty”, “control” and “prosperity”.

France would produce a million electric cars in the next three years. State subsidies to allow poorer motorists to lease electric cars for €100 a month will be announced in November. The government would give €700 million towards the €10 billion cost of building or extending new, fast, commuter train networks in 13 French conurbations.

French carbon emissions would be reduced by five percent a year to reach the target of 270m tonnes by 2030 – half what the country produced in 1990.

To achieve this goal, Macron said, there would need to be a “policy of a general change in behaviour.”  

But he said there would be no question of abandoning or punishing modest households or farmers or people in rural areas dependent on cars or banning household gas boilers. He made no mention of higher taxes on flying or a 110 kph speed limit on motorways – measures to force “changes in behaviour” proposed by moderate climate activists and some voices within government.

This was finally a very political statement – and maybe rightly so. It was a recognition that there is growing risk that the case for radical climate action is being lost on the right and far right of European politics, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Germany and potentially in France.

Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National sees in a cynical downplaying of climate change a big vote winner – bigger possibly than immigration – in rural and outer-suburban France. Mathilde Androuët, the Rassemblement National spokeswoman on ecology, says that Macron angers the struggling middle classes every time that he mentions the “green transition”.

“All of that stuff is seen as a fad of the elite by the people who will bear the burden of change,” she said. “Don’t forget that the Gilets Jaunes movement began with a tax on petrol and diesel prices.”

Macron has not forgotten the Gilets Jaunes. They were absent but ever-present in his speech on Monday.

The president faced a double or triple conundrum. Despite a burning hot summer (literally in some places), popular opinion is more concerned at present with inflation than with climate change – “the end of the week, rather than the end of the world”.

Macron needs to spend state money to soften the impact of inflation. He needs to spend more state money to “accompany” (as he puts it) carbon-reduction plans in household heating and transport.

He is also trying to reduce France’s budget deficit. The sums do not easily add up.

Macron chose to present the conundrum as a great opportunity – a chance for France to rebuild its industrial base by investing in electric cars and batteries and heat-pumps, to clean the air in cities and to boost the economy by reducing imports of fossil fuels.

“Our dependance on fossil energy costs us €120 billion a year—that’s the cost of our dependance”, he said. Reducing fossil fuel use to 40 percent by 2030 will create a “value-added ecology” and a country that is more “sovereign” and takes back “control”.

The repeated use of right-wing buzz-words was deliberate. It is a way of confronting the Right and Far Right with their own incoherence on climate policy.

But the speech was meant to jolt as well as reassure public opinion. That balance was lost. Cutting carbon emissions by 5 percent a year for seven years will be painful; Macron admitted as much and tried to conceal it at the same time.

The president has also been forced by bad memories of the Gilets Jaunes into incoherences of his own. He had announced the previous evening that a €100 a year state subsidy for poorer car users would be restored, weeks after his government said that such hand-outs must end.

Many of the president’s announcements on Monday were not new. The €100 a month lease for electric cars was in his campaign platform last year. The “new” urban train networks were announced in the spring and already exist in some cities.

The plan has now been extended to 13 conurbations – almost every large metropolitan area in France. But the government’s €700million is only a fraction of the €10billion needed.

Compared to the muddle on climate policy in some neighbouring countries (Germany as well as the UK), there was much to welcome in Macron’s speech. Offering a positive case for climate change action makes ecological as well as political sense.

Hard choices remain hard choices all the same. It remains to be seen whether in the remaining four years of the Macron era, the balance will be long-term ecological or short-term political.