PARIS (AP) — French people hoping to preserve their retirement benefits took to the streets across the country on Wednesday as President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension plan was validated by a committee of legislators meeting behind closed doors.
Macron had the means within the joint committee of the Senate and the National Assembly to advance his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, but it remains to be seen whether he can command a parliamentary majority. Otherwise, Macron should unilaterally impose the unpopular changes.
Unions hope some 200 protests across the country will demonstrate the political consequences of the change, which Macron has promoted as central to his vision to make the French economy more competitive.
Economic challenges caused widespread unrest across Western Europe. In Britain on Wednesday, teachers, young doctors and public transport staff were striking for higher wages to match the rising prices. And Spain’s left-wing government has joined unions in announcing a ‘historic’ deal to save its pension system by increasing payroll taxes for high earners.
The Spanish solution is exactly what French unions would like, but Macron refused to raise taxes, saying it would make the country’s economy less competitive. Something has to be done, the president argued, with France’s retired population expected to grow from 16 million to 21 million by 2050.
Loud music and huge union balloons kicked off the Paris protest, near Napoleon’s tomb at the golden dome of Les Invalides. A panoply of banners sets the tone: “They say capitalism. We say fight,” reads one. Others said “Paris enraged” or “If rights are not defended, they will be violated”.
“If we don’t speak now, all our rights that the French fought for will be lost.” said Nicolas Durand, a 33-year-old actor. “Macron is out of touch and in bed with the rich. It’s easy for people in government to say they work harder, but their life has been easy.
A sanitation workers’ strike in its 10th day has left Paris awash with heaps of rancid rubbish, which police ordered cleared along the march route after troublemakers used rubbish to light fires or throwing trash at police during recent protests.
Protesters accompanied by a large security force marched down the Left Bank along open streets. A group of troublemakers dressed in black formed and attacked a small business, and 22 people were arrested, Paris police said.
Security forces also countered the violence with accusations and tear gas in several other cities, including Rennes and Nantes in eastern France and Lyon in the southeast, according to French media.
The committee of seven senators and seven legislators of the National Assembly agreed on Wednesday on the final text, and a conservative majority in the Senate in favor of raising the retirement age is expected to approve it on Thursday.
The situation in the National Assembly is much more complicated.
Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in parliamentary elections last year, forcing the government to rely on votes from conservatives to pass the bill. Left and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed and conservatives are split, making the outcome unpredictable.
Macron organized an evening strategy session with Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and the ministers in charge of the bill at the Elysee Palace. Approval in the National Assembly on Thursday would give the plan more legitimacy, but rather than face the risk of rejection, Macron could instead use his special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.
French government spokesman Olivier Véran said on Wednesday that the bill would continue its way through the legislative process, respecting “all the rules provided for in our Constitution”.
Republican Party lawmaker Aurelien Pradie – who opposes the reforms – said on Wednesday that if the special power is used, he would appeal to the Constitutional Council, a top French court.
Train drivers, teachers, dockworkers, oil refinery workers and others joined garbage collectors to walk off the job on Wednesday, maneuvering past thousands of tonnes of piled up trash on the sidewalks of Paris and other French cities.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has asked Paris City Hall to force some of the garbage collectors back to work, calling it a public health issue.
Paris mayor, socialist Anne Hidalgo, said she supported the strike. Government spokeswoman Véran warned that if she does not comply, the Interior Ministry is ready to act in her place.
Public transport, meanwhile, has been disrupted: Around 40% of high-speed trains and half of regional trains have been cut. The Paris metro has slowed down and the French aviation authority has warned of delays, saying 20% of flights at Paris-Orly airport have been cancelled.
Paris police said 37,000 people took part in the French capital, down 11,000 from Saturday, even as polls show widespread opposition to the pensions bill. The main CGT union said 450,000 people took part in Paris and 1.7 million across France.
“It will be those who work the hardest who get a bad deal. It’s always like that,” says Magali Brutel, a 41-year-old nurse. “Very rich people could pay more taxes, it’s a good solution to pay an aging population. Why do we actually tax the oldest and poorest?
Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed.