June 21. 2024. 6:15

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French government survives no-confidence votes amid anger over pensions reform

Emmanuel Macron’s government survived two no-confidence votes brought by opposition lawmakers on Monday and took a step closer to enacting its unpopular pensions reform after overriding parliament last week.

The no-confidence motion filed by a small group called Liot garnered support from 278 members of parliament in the National Assembly, falling short by only nine votes, an unexpectedly close result. A separate motion filed by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party only received 94 votes because other opposition parties remain wary of teaming up with the far-right party.

The no-confidence motions were the result of prime minister Élisabeth Borne triggering the 49.3 clause of the French constitution last week, passing the draft law without a parliamentary vote. Now that the motions have failed, the pensions reform raising the retirement age by two years to 64 can be adopted and the Borne government will remain in place.

Soon after the vote, small groups of protesters gathered around parliament and clashed with police.

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Labour unions have promised to keep up the pressure by hardening strikes in vital sectors such as rubbish collection, energy and transport. A nationwide protest is also set for Thursday. On Monday, about 8 per cent of petrol stations in France were short of at least one fuel because of rolling strikes at petrol refineries. The situation was worse in the Bouches-du-Rhône region where half were affected and rationing had begun.

Opposition parties are also planning to file appeals to the constitutional court with the aim of invalidating the law on procedural grounds, while the left is also trying to overturn it via a public referendum.

“Nothing is solved, we’ll continue to do all we can so this reform is withdrawn,” said Mathilde Panot, who heads the far-left France Unbowed group in the National Assembly.

Although it has survived the no-confidence votes, Macron’s ability to enact laws to achieve his goals for his second term, such as reaching full employment or fighting climate change, appears to be severely compromised. After losing his majority in legislative elections in June last year, the president had hoped to govern by forming ad hoc coalitions with the left and the right on each draft law, but the limits of the approach became clear on pensions reform.

The president has been debating with advisers and political allies about how to rebound from the pensions reform crisis, and may address the public in a speech later this week. One option being considered would be a government reshuffle that would replace the prime minister.

Anger had already been on display in the streets in advance of the votes. Police arrested hundreds of people who demonstrated from Paris to Rennes to show their displeasure at Macron’s tactics. While the 49.3 clause has been used by governments of all stripes since its creation in 1958, applying it to a pensions Bill that is opposed by roughly two-thirds of the public runs the risk of radicalising street protests.

Borne defended the use of the 49.3 clause, saying it “was not the invention of some dictator but the profoundly democratic choice made by general de Gaulle and approved by the French public”, referring to how the 1958 constitution that included it was approved by referendum.

Laurent Berger, the head of the more moderate CFDT union, called on Macron to see reason. “The country has gone from a crisis in the streets to a crisis in its democracy,” he told the newspaper Libération. “The president must simply withdraw this reform.”

In rare cases, previous French governments have backed down from applying legislation when faced with strong protests, such as in 2006 when it overruled lawmakers to pass a less-protective labour contract for young people via a 49.3 clause, only to cave in shortly after.

Macron has argued that the pensions reform is necessary as the population ages, given that the system relies on active workers to finance the benefits of current retirees.

Opponents of his reform argue that there are better ways to shore up the system, such as by raising taxes or asking wealthy retirees to contribute, that would not fall so unfairly on blue-collar workers, some of whom have physically demanding jobs.

[ Protests continue in France as Macron faces challenge over pension reforms ]

France spends about 13 per cent of its national output on retiree benefits, higher than the EU average of 10.3 per cent, largely because the system pays out generous benefits that replace more of workers’ wages than elsewhere. The country also struggles to keep older people in jobs, so the average effective age that men leave the workforce is 60.4, compared with 62.6 in the EU and 63.8 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Without reform, the government expects the pensions deficit to rise to €13.5 billion in 2030. With it, the government expects savings of €10.3 billion by 2027 and €17.7 billion by 2030. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023