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French Senate approves pensions reform as protests appear to lose steam

Agence France-Presse
French Senate approves pensions reform as protests appear to lose steam
French Senator and President of the Senate's Social Affairs Committee Catherine Deroche speaks to the press to present the conclusions of a report on a bill aimed at reforming France's pensions system, at the French Senate in Paris, on February 28, 2023. The government's contested pensions overhaul bill, which includes raising the age of retirement from 62 to 64, has passed to the upperhouse for examination on February 28, following a stormy two-week debate in the lower house without even reaching a discussion on its contentious Article 7 on raising the retirement age.
AFP / Stefano Rellandini

PARIS, France — France's Senate voted late Saturday to approve a deeply unpopular reform to the country's pension system, hours after demonstrators took to the streets to oppose the cornerstone policy of President Emmanuel Macron's second term in office.

Senators passed the reforms by 195 votes to 112, bringing the package another step closer to becoming law. A committee will now hammer out a final draft, which will then be submitted to both the Senate and National Assembly for a final vote.

"An important step was taken this evening with a broad vote on the pension reform text in the Senate," Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told AFP after the vote, adding that she believed the government had a parliamentary majority to get the reforms passed into law.

Should Macron's government fail to assemble the necessary majority, however, Borne could deploy a rarely used and highly controversial constitutional tool, known as article 49/3, to push the legislation through without a vote.

Unions, which have fiercely opposed the measures, still hoped on Saturday to force Macron to back down, though the day's protests against the reform were far smaller than some previous ones.

"This is the final stretch," Marylise Leon, deputy leader of the CFDT union, told the broadcaster Franceinfo on Saturday. "The endgame is now."

Tensions flared in the evening, with Paris police saying they had made 32 arrests after some protesters threw objects at security forces, with rubbish bins burned and windows broken.

This week, Macron twice turned down urgent calls by unions to meet with him in a last-ditch attempt to get him to change his mind.

The snub made unions "very angry", said Philippe Martinez, boss of the hard-left CGT union.

"When there are millions of people in the streets, when there are strikes and all we get from the other side is silence, people wonder: What more do we need to do to be heard?" he said, calling for a referendum on the pensions reform.

The interior ministry said some 368,000 people showed up nationwide for protests -- less than half of the 800,000 to one million that police had predicted.

In Paris, 48,000 people took part in rallies, compared to police forecasts of around 100,000.

Unions, who put the attendance figure at a million, had hoped turnout would be higher on a Saturday, when most people did not have to take time off work to attend. On February 11, also a Saturday, 963,000 people demonstrated, according to police.

On the last big strike and protest day on Tuesday, turnout was just under 1.3 million people according to police, and more than three million according to unions.

'Future of children'

The reform's headline measure is a hike in the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62, seen by many as unfair to people who started working young.

"I'm here to fight for my colleagues and for our young people," said Claude Jeanvoine, 63, a retired train driver demonstrating in Strasbourg, in eastern France.

"People shouldn't let the government get away with this, this is about the future of their children and grandchildren," he told AFP.

The reforms would also increase the number of years people have to make contributions in order to receive a full pension.

Protesters say that women, especially mothers, are also at a disadvantage under the new reforms.

"If I'd known this was coming, I wouldn't have stopped working to look after my kids when they were small," said Sophie Merle, a 50-year-old childcare provider in the southern city of Marseille.

Several sectors in the French economy have been targeted by union calls for indefinite strikes, including in rail and air transport, power stations, natural gas terminals and rubbish collection.

On Saturday in Paris, urban transit was little affected by stoppages, except for some suburban train lines.

But uncollected rubbish has begun to accumulate in some of the capital's neighbourhoods, and airlines cancelled around 20 percent of their flights scheduled at French airports.

An opinion poll published by broadcaster BFMTV on Saturday found that 63 percent of French people approved of the protests against the reform, and 54 percent were also in favour of the strikes and blockages in some sectors.

Some 78 percent, however, said they believed that Macron would end up getting the reform adopted.

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