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French govt pushes through pension reforms without vote

The French government has snubbed parliament over changes to the pension system because there was insufficient support for a reform it deemed necessary.

March 17, 2023
17 March 2023

France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has used a special procedure to push an unpopular pensions bill through the National Assembly without a vote, triggering boos and shouts of “Resign!” in rare chaotic scenes in the French parliament.

The move will ensure the bill raising the retirement age by two years to 64 – which the government says is essential to ensure the pension system does not go bust – is adopted after weeks of protests and fractious debate.

But it also shows President Emmanuel Macron and his government failed to garner a majority in parliament, in a blow to the centrist president and his ability to win support from other parties for further reforms.

Borne was greeted by boos and jeers as she arrived in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, to announce that she would invoke article 49.3 of the constitution to skip a vote on the reform measures.

The session was suspended for two minutes after opposition MPs singing the national anthem prevented Borne from speaking. 

Some held placards reading “No to 64 years”.

When the session resumed, Borne took the floor but her speech was largely drowned out by the same boos and chants.

“We cannot gamble on the future of our pensions, this reform is necessary,” Borne told MPs, to explain why she was using the 49.3 procedure.

Populist National Rally leader Marine Le Pen said Borne should resign. 

“This last-minute resort to 49.3 is an extraordinary sign of weakness,” she said, adding: “She must go.”

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the progressive France Insoumise (France Unbowed) called the move “a spectacular failure”.

“This bill has no parliamentary legitimacy, no legitimacy from the street,” he said at a protest rally outside parliament.

The upper house had given the green light to the bill on Thursday morning as expected, thanks to support from senators from the conservative Les Republicains (LR).

But the afternoon vote in the National Assembly was expected to have been a different matter. 

There, LR lawmakers were split on the issue.

According to a source present at a last-minute meeting at the Elysee, Macron told Borne and others he had wanted to go for a vote.

“But I consider that the financial and economic risks (of the bill being voted down) are too great,” he said.

Opinion polls indicate a vast majority of voters oppose the pension reform, as do trade unions, who say there are other ways to balance the accounts, including taxing the wealthy more.

Resorting to the measure is likely to further enrage unions, protesters and opposition parties who say the pension overhaul is unfair and unnecessary.

Socialist Party head Olivier Faure told Reuters earlier on Thursday that such a move could unleash “uncontrollable anger” after weeks of rolling strikes and protests that have hit power production, blocked some shipments from refineries and seen rubbish pile up on the streets of Paris.

“We’re as determined as ever,” said CGT unionist Christophe Jouanneau at a refinery on strike in the western France city of Donges. 

“From next week on, we will take things up a gear.”

Opposition parties said they would request a vote of no confidence in the government, which will be voted on in the coming days, possibly on Monday.

That is unlikely to pass as most conservative MPs would not be expected to back it – unless a surprise alliance of MPs from all sides is formed, including the conservatives.

The government had initially said the reform would allow the system to break even by 2030, with 17.7 billion euros ($A28.3 billion) in additional annual contributions coming from pushing back the retirement age and extending the pay-in period.

It says the accounts will still be balanced in that timeframe, with additional income compensating measures agreed by Macron’s camp to try to get LR’s support, including a softener for those who started to work early and a top-up for some working mothers.

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