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New showdown for France's Macron as pension reform hits parliament

AFP
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New showdown for France's Macron as pension reform hits parliament
France is braced for more protests as the government's pension reforms go before Parliament (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron's government faces a crunch week of defending its contested pension reform, with fireworks expected in parliament and mass strikes and demonstrations planned on the streets.

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Walkouts and marches are planned for Tuesday and Saturday, while left-wing opponents of the minority administration have already filed thousands of amendments to the reform bill ahead of the parliamentary debate beginning on Monday afternoon.

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

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Macron's plan to raise the age of retirement is a flagship policy of his second term in office, which he has defended as "essential" given forecasts for deficits in the coming years.

But it is widely unpopular and 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.

"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 the hard-left La France Insoumise.

"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, with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday offering a key concession to win support from the conservative Les Républicains party.

While the reform will set a new legal minimum retirement age of 64 for most workers - up from 62 - Borne said people who started work aged between 20 and 21 will be covered by an exemption allowing them to finish work 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.

But Les Républicains leader Eric Ciotti told the Parisien newspaper that he would back the reform, potentially securing a majority for the government.

Although re-elected to the presidency last year, Macron also lost his parliamentary majority and has been forced either to cobble together compromises or ram through laws using an unpopular constitutional side door.

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After an attempt to reform France's pension laws in 2019 were stymied by the coronavirus crisis, the changes mark another step by reformist Macron in aligning France's economy with its EU neighbours - most of which already have higher retirement ages than the proposed 64 years.

He and his ministers aim to get the pensions system out of deficit by 2030 by finding around €18 billion of annual savings - mostly from getting 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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