Armed police were deployed outside France’s Constitutional Council on Friday ahead of its key ruling on whether the government’s plans to lift the retirement age, which have spurred huge protests, are in line with constitutional rules.
President Emmanuel Macron says the French must work longer or else the pension budget will fall billions of euros into the red each year by the end of the decade. But the pension system is a cornerstone of France's cherished social protection model and trade unions say the money can be found elsewhere, including by taxing the rich more heavily.
Mr Macron made a pension system overhaul a flagship reform of his second term in office. At stake for the president are not just financial gains but his reformist credentials.
His opponents took the reform to the Constitutional Council on the grounds it was tacked onto a social security budget bill, which curtailed parliamentary debate, and was then forced through without a final vote in parliament.
Government insiders and constitutional experts expect the council will say the government’s actions were in line with the constitution and approve raising the legal retirement age by two years to 64, perhaps with some minor caveats.
Mr Macron and his government hope such an outcome would discourage further trade union-led protests, which have at times turned violent. ”The country must continue to move forward, work, and face the challenges that await us,” he said during a state visit to the Netherlands.
Hardline unions and the opposition warn they will not back down even if it gets the council’s approval.
Macron must withdraw this bill "or he won't be able to rule this country," the new head of the CGT union, Sophie Binet, said on Thursday, warning of more industrial action.
‘Sword of Damocles’
The legislation foresees that the increased legal retirement age will be implemented gradually, with the age lifted by three months each year starting from this September, until 2030.
From 2027, most workers will have to make social security contributions over 43 years rather than 42 years in order to draw a full pension. This was already foreseen in a 2014 reform but Mr Macron is accelerating the pace of transition.
"We still hope that someone in a high place will decide to abandon this law, sit around a table and look at pension funding differently," 52-year-old postal service worker Francis Bourget said at a protest in Paris on Thursday.
The Constitutional Council will also rule on opposition calls for a citizens’ referendum. It’s a long shot for Mr Macron’s opponents but could still dog the government for months, while the opposition tries to gather the nearly five million signatures it would need to push it through.
"It would place a sword of Damocles (above our heads) for nine months. It wouldn't be easy, but we wouldn't be paralysed like we have been during the last few weeks," one government source said.
A source close to Mr Macron said the government was likely to enact swiftly the pension reform legislation, possibly early next week, if it gets the council’s green light.
Constitutional experts say it is unlikely the entire reform will be invalidated. More likely is that some measures designed to boost employment for older workers are struck down on the grounds that they do not belong in legislation tacked onto a social security budget bill.
Political observers say the widespread discontent over the government's reform could have longer-term repercussions, including a possible boost for the far right.
“I’m not that optimistic about the Constitutional Council’s decision,” far right leader Marine Le Pen, who opposes the pension legislation, said earlier this week. “But what do you want me to do? Burn cars? We’ll just tell the French: Vote for the National Rally.” - Reuters
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