Controversial pension reform plan faces first parliamentary showdown

By Michael Fitzpatrick - RFI
FEB 6, 2023 LISTEN

French President Emmanuel Macron's government faces a difficult week in efforts to impose contested pension reform, with angry debate expected in parliament and mass strikes and demonstrations planned on the streets.

Strikes and protest marches are planned for Tuesday and Saturday. Left-wing opponents of the government have already filed thousands of amendments ahead of the parliamentary debate scheduled to open on Monday afternoon.

Trains and the Paris metro are again expected to suffer "severe disruptions" according to operators, and around one in five flights at Orly airport south of the capital are expected to be cancelled Tuesday.

President Macron's plan to raise the age at which workers can retire is a key policy of his second term in office, which he has defended as "essential" given forecasts for huge deficits in the retirement system.

The reform is unpopular. 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.

'This will be settled on the streets'

"It's out in the country that this will be settled, either by a revolt or by enduring disgust" with the government, said Francois Ruffin, an MP for hard-left France Unbowed.

"The government is no longer trying to convince people, but just to win, win by resignation and exhaustion" among opponents, he added.

Macron's government have so far stuck to their guns on key elements of the plan, although Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday did offer concessions in an effort to win support from the conservative Republicans party.

While the reform will increase the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 for most workers, Borne on Sunday agreed that people who had started work between the ages of 20 and 21 will be covered by an exemption allowing them to leave earlier, at 63.

Calling the offer a "patch", the head of the CFDT union Laurent Berger said that the move "isn't the response to the huge, geographically and professionally diverse mobilisation" that has swept France.

Republicans promise support

Republicans chief Eric Ciotti told the Parisien newspaper that he would back the reform, potentially securing a majority for the government.

Macron's government hopes to get the pensions system out of deficit by 2030 by finding around 18 billion euros of annual savings, by obliging people to work longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

While Prime Minister Borne and other government supporters 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 recognise physically strenuous jobs and penalises older workers.

Borne said the government would pile pressure on companies to end the practice of sacking older employees, which leaves many struggling to find work in their final years before retirement.

"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 waste to deprive ourselves of their skills."