Macron’s pension plan advances despite strikes across France

PARIS (AP) — French people hoping to preserve their retirement benefits took to the streets nationwide on Wednesday as President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension plan was validated by a committee of lawmakers meeting behind closed doors.

Macron had the means on the joint Senate and National Assembly committee to advance his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, but it remains to be seen whether it can command a parliamentary majority. If not, Macron would have to impose the unpopular changes unilaterally.

Unions are hoping some 200 protests across the country will demonstrate the political consequences to the change, which Macron has promoted as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive.

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 left-wing government joined with labor unions to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system by raising social security costs for higher wage earners.

Spain’s solution is exactly what French unions would like, but Macron has refused to raise taxes, saying it would make the country’s economy less competitive. Something must be done, the president has argued, with France’s retired population expected to increase from 16 to 21 million people by 2050.

Loud music and huge union balloons kicked off the Paris demonstration, near Napoleon’s tomb at the gold-dome Invalides. An array of banners set the tone: “They say capitalism. We say fight,” read one. Others said “Paris enraged,” or “If rights aren’t defended, they’ll be trampled.”

“If we don’t speak up now then all our rights that the French have fought for will be lost.” said Nicolas Durand, a 33-year-old actor. “Macron is out of touch, and in bed with the rich. It’s easy for the people in government to say work harder, but their lives have been easy.”

A sanitation workers’ strike in its 10th day has left Paris awash in piles of rancid rubbish, which police ordered cleared out along the march route after troublemakers used garbage to start fires or throw trash at police in recent demonstrations.

Marchers accompanied by a heavy security force moved through the Left Bank along unencumbered streets. One group of black-clad troublemakers formed and attacked a small business, and 22 people were detained, police in Paris said.

Security forces also countered violence with charges and tear gas in several other cities, including Rennes and Nantes in eastern France and Lyon in the southeast, according to French media.

The committee of seven senators and seven National Assembly lawmakers agreed Wednesday on the final text, and a conservative Senate majority that favors raising the retirement age is expected to approve it as early as Thursday.

The situation at the National Assembly is much 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 arranged an evening strategy session with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and ministers in charge of the bill at the Elysee presidential palace. Approval in the National Assembly Thursday 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.

French government spokesperson Olivier Véran said Wednesday that the bill will continue its way through the legislative process, respecting “all the rules that are provided by our Constitution.”

Republicans party lawmaker Aurelien Pradié — who opposes the reforms — said Wednesday that if this special power were used, he would lodge a challenge to the constitutional council, a higher French legal body.

Train drivers, school teachers, dock workers, oil refinery workers and others joined garbage collectors in walking off their jobs on Wednesday, maneuvering past thousands of tons of garbage piling up on the sidewalks of Paris and other French cities.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin asked Paris City Hall to force some of the garbage workers to return to work, calling it a public health issue.

The Paris mayor, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, said she supports the strike. Government spokesperson Véran warned that if she doesn’t comply, the Interior Ministry is ready to act instead.

Public transport, meanwhile has been disrupted: About 40% of high-speed trains and half the regional trains have been canceled. The Paris Metro has slowed, and France’s aviation authority warned of delays, saying 20% of the flights at Paris-Orly airport have been canceled.

Paris police said 37,000 participated in the French capital, 11,000 less than Saturday, even as polls show widespread opposition to the pension bill. The leading CGT union said 450,000 participated in Paris and 1.7 million across all of France.

“It will be those who work the hardest who will get a bad deal. It’s always like that,” said Magali Brutel, a 41-year-old nurse. “Very rich people could pay more in taxes — that’s a good solution to pay for an aging population. Why are we effectively taxing the oldest and the poorest?”


Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed.

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