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France's Constitutional Council considers second bid for referendum on pension reform

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France's Constitutional Council considers second bid for referendum on pension reform
France's Conseil Constitutionnel has a big decision to make. (Photo by Ian LANGSDON / AFP)

A decision will be made on Wednesday on a whether changing France’s retirement age should be put to a referendum.

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France’s Conseil Constitutionnel was due to decide on Wednesday whether controversial pension reforms should be put to a referendum.

The country’s highest constitutional authority - which routinely scrutinises new laws to ensure that they are within the spirit of the French constitution - has been asked by 250 left-wing and independent MPs and senators, who oppose raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, to put the bill to a Référendum d'initiative partagée (RIP).

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: What is France’s Constitutional Council and how does it work?

It is the second attempt to have the bill put to a public vote, after the first was rejected on April 14th, the day the Conseil validated all but six articles of the pension reform bill - a decision that led to demonstrations, some violent, in several French cities.

There are strict rules surrounding the granting of an RIP vote.

To be deemed admissible, the appeal must fall within the scope of the “organisation of public powers”, “reforms relating to the economic, social or environmental policy of the nation and the public services which contribute thereto”,  or, “the ratification of a treaty which, without being contrary to the Constitution, would affect the functioning of [France’s] institutions”.

The Conseil rejected the first appeal for an RIP because it did not involve a “change in the rule of law” - or a “reform”.

When the request was made, the legal retirement age was 62. The text, therefore, amounted to maintaining the status quo, rather than modifying an existing law. It, therefore, the Conseil said, did not fall into the framework that permitted the granting of an RIP.

The second request - “to prohibit a legal retirement age higher than 62 years” - is fundamentally the same as that rejected in the earlier demand. But this time advocates of a public vote on the bill have added a second request, for a “significant contribution of capital income” to the financing of pensions.

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This, they argue, satisfies the requirement for “an element of reform” demanded by RIP rules.

Pension reforms have been the subject of repeated strikes and demonstrations since January 19th, which have caused widespread disruption to services including flights, trains and city public transport, as well as causing fuel shortages through oil refinery blockades. 

Although President Emmanuel Macron has put his signature to the bill, further strikes and protests are planned for June - when a bill put forward by the Libertés, Indépendants, Outre-mer et Territoires (LIOT) group in Parliament that would repeal the change is due to be debated in Parliament. 

READ ALSO French unions call fresh strikes in June

The Conseil’s decision on the second appeal for a public referendum should be made public by the end of Wednesday.

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Even if it is successful - and several experts have suggested that it will fail - the path to an RIP vote is long and difficult. It would then be necessary to gather the signatures of 4.8 million people in favour of a public vote, within nine months. 

And a referendum could then take place only if both chambers of parliament refused to examine the bill in the following six months, at which point the President could put the question to the people.

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