PARIS (AP) — Opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension plan are staging an eighth round of strikes and protests Wednesday as a joint committee of senators and lower-house lawmakers examines the contested bill.
The latest step in the legislative process to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is prompting a peak of political tensions and one key question: Will the bill command a parliamentary majority?
Meanwhile, unions are hoping the 200 demonstrations taking place across the country will further show workers’ massive opposition to the plan, promoted by Macron as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive.
The strikes in France are part of widespread unrest in Western Europe about the economic situation. In Britain on Wednesday, teachers, junior doctors and public transport staff were among those striking to back their demands for higher wages to match rising prices.
Wednesday’s meeting of seven French senators and seven lawmakers from the National Assembly is meant to find an accord on the final version of the text. The Senate is expected to approve it on Thursday, as its conservative majority is in favour of raising the retirement age.
The situation at the National Assembly is much more complicated, however.
Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in legislative elections last year, forcing the government to count on conservatives' votes to pass the bill. Leftists and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed to the measure.
The head of the conservative Republicans, Eric Ciotti, who himself has a seat at the National Assembly, said in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that “the highest interest of the nation ... commands us to vote for the reform.”
But conservative lawmakers are divided and some are planning to vote against or abstain, making the outcome in the lower house hard to predict.
With no guarantee of a majority, Macron's government is facing a dilemma: A vote Thursday afternoon in the National Assembly would give more legitimacy to the bill, if adopted, but there's a risk it would be rejected.
Another option would be to use a special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote. But such an unpopular move would prompt immediate criticism from the political opposition and unions about the lack of democratic debate.
French government spokesperson Olivier Véran said Wednesday that the government wants the joint committee, dominated by supporters of the reform, to find an accord to “financially balance and strengthen our pension system.”
The bill will continue its way through the legislative process, respecting "all the rules that are provided by our Constitution," he said.
Véran spoke after a weekly Cabinet meeting during which the government did not discuss whether to use its special constitutional power.
Republicans party lawmaker Aurelien Pradié — who opposes the reforms — said Wednesday that if this special power were used he would lodge it with the constitutional council, a higher French legal body, to challenge the democratic legitimacy of the move.
Train drivers, school teachers, dock workers and others are expected to walk off the job Wednesday. Thousands of tons of garbage is piling up on the sidewalks of Paris and other French cities amid a continuing strike against the pension plan.
In Paris, garbage collectors and sanitation agents announced that they will continue the strike until at least March 20.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin asked Paris city hall to force some of the garbage workers to return to work, calling it a public health issue.
The Paris mayor, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, said she supports the strike. Government spokesperson Véran warned that if she doesn't comply, the Interior Ministry is ready to act instead.
Public transport was disrupted in many cities. About 40% of high-speed trains and half regional trains have been canceled. The Paris metro was slightly disrupted. France's aviation authority, the DGAC, said 20% of the flights at Paris-Orly airport have been canceled, and warned about potential delays.
Protesters gathered at several areas including sites for the 2024 Olympics.
Workers in several oil refineries are also among those pursuing an open-ended strike launched last week.