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Strasbourg will remain EU capital, France vows

France would never allow Strasbourg to be stripped of its status as a European capital, President Francois Hollande said on Sunday, despite the huge cost of shuttling EU politicians there from Brussels each month.

Strasbourg will remain EU capital, France vows
Members of the European Parliament are forced to decamp every month from Brussels to Strasbourg for voting sessions. Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP

"Never will France authorize any modification of any kind," Hollande said as he signed new agreements providing close to €1 billion ($1.1 billion) to the city and the surrounding region of Alsace.

Members of the European Parliament are forced to decamp every month from Brussels to Strasbourg for voting sessions — a tradition enshrined in the earliest European Union treaties.

The "travelling circus", as some call it, costs taxpayers an estimated €114 million ($125 million) a year, according to an assessment by the European Court of Auditors last year.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 people, including around 800 members of parliament and their administrative staff and translators, make the journey for one week every month.

They use their Strasbourg offices only 317 days per year, but the parliament building still requires 100 full-time staff to keep it running.

Two express trains are chartered to carry officials, and several thousand boxes full of documents have to be transported by a courier agency.

Although many MEPs dislike the disruption, and fear the waste fuels voter distrust, it is unlikely to change.

Shifting the seat of parliament permanently to Brussels would require unanimous support from all 28 members of the EU, and would certainly be blocked by France which fiercely protects the prestige and financial benefits that come with hosting the sessions.

However in November 2013 a sign of the growing support for the parliament to be based permanently in Brussels was seen clearl when MEPs adopted a text by 483 votes to 141 that backs changing the European Union treaty to allow the parliament itself, rather than member states, to decide on where it sits. 

READ ALSO: Why the EU parliament must stay in Strasbourg

Paris saw that vote as a step in the wrong direction and French MEP Philippe Boulland has slammed the move but told The Local at the time that it had nothing to do with his nationality and all to do with reconciliation.

“It is not just because I am French that I am against the move. Yes many French MEPs are against the idea of leaving Strasbourg, because it is a city that is symbolic of reconciliation in Europe," he said.

“This is a city on the border between France and Germany, who not so long ago were in a conflict with each other.

"Strasbourg is a symbol of their reconciliation and it is appropriate the parliament is here because France and Germany were the two founders of the united Europe and they are the two driving forces behind the EU.

It’s also important to have a diversity in the locations of the institutions of the EU and not have them all centred in Brussels.

The new investments signed by Hollande on Sunday — part of a funding programme that dates back to 1980 — were focused on transport, energy, research and innovation, digital services and culture.

Strasbourg also hosts the European Court of Human Rights and several other institutions.

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POLITICS

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

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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