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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Macron will swim in Seine but ‘not necessarily’ before Olympics

Emmanuel Macron still plans to swim in the River Seine as promised but "not necessarily" before the Paris Olympic Games which begin in a week, the Elysee presidential office said on Friday.

Macron will swim in Seine but 'not necessarily' before Olympics

The French president has insisted several times that he would dive into the capital’s river to highlight the possibility of swimming there again thanks to major depollution work, and to reassure about the quality of the water.

But Macron, 46, never set a date, and did not join Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo who both took a dip in the murky waters in the past week.

“He didn’t announce that he was going to swim before the Olympics, he announced that he was going to swim and he has always expressed this certainty,” a spokesperson for the president told journalists on Friday.

“He will not necessarily have the opportunity to do so before the Games.”

READ ALSO: In pictures: Paris mayor takes pre-Olympic dip in cleaned-up Seine

A presidential adviser clarified that no date had been set. “As he said when he announced it, what seems essential to him beyond the fact that it allows us to organise Olympic competitions, is that it will above all allow us to open swimming sites for all the numerous residents of the Ile-de-France region in the years to come,” the adviser continued.

“It will therefore undoubtedly be in this spirit that he will have the opportunity to swim when he is able to do so.”

Clean six out of seven days

Earlier Friday, Paris city hall announced the Seine had been clean enough to swim in for six of seven days tested between July 10-16.

Weather permitting, the river will be the star of the opening ceremony of the Games on July 26 and will then host the triathlon and the swimming marathon.

Despite improving water quality results since the end of June, suspense remains over whether these competitions can go ahead on the river through the French capital.

Although the river’s E.Coli bacterial level was below the thresholds six days a week at the sampling point on the Alexandre-III bridge, results from three other Parisian sites are much more mixed.

In the event of heavy rain, untreated sewage can be washed into the river.

A downpour on July 9 “impacted the water quality of the Seine”, as did storms and rain overnight July 11 to 12, regional authorities said.

But in both cases, the water quality quickly recovered, in two or three days.

A positive note for organisers is that the flow of the Seine, still unseasonably high which unfavourably impacts water quality, continues to decrease thanks to dry weather.

If the quality is below standards a ‘Plan B’ involves postponing the events for a few days or moving the marathon swimming to Vaires-sur-Marne, on the Marne river east of Paris.