A proposed reform of France’s pension system, which has sparked massive protests and strikes since the start of the year, is to be put to a vote in parliament on Thursday in a decisive moment for President Emmanuel Macron.
The Senate and lower house National Assembly are set to hold ballots on the legislation to raise the retirement age to 64, with Macron’s minority government dependent on the opposition Republicans (LR) party for support.
After months of negotiations, “everyone wants a moment of truth”, a senior figure in Macron’s Renaissance party told AFP on condition of anonymity. He conceded that there was a risk that “we might lose”.
Support appears almost certain in the upper house Senate, but a majority will be more difficult to find in the fractured Assembly, and the ultimate winning or losing margin could come down to a handful of votes.
“In my group, as well as in the ruling party, there are some MPs who do not want to vote for this reform,” the top-ranking Republicans party lawmaker in the Assembly, Olivier Marleix, conceded on Wednesday evening.
The government has argued that raising the retirement age, scrapping privileges for some public sector workers and toughening criteria for a full pension are needed to prevent major deficits building up.
Trade unions have led resistance to the plans since the start of the year, organising some of the biggest demonstrations in decades, which peaked last Tuesday when an estimated 1.28 million people hit the streets.
They say the reform will penalise low-income people in manual jobs who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates who are less affected by the changes.
A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris over the last week has seen an estimated 7,000 tonnes of uncollected trash pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.
The strike affecting around half of the city’s districts has been extended until March 20, with private refuse company Derichebourg carrying out emergency collections in some of the worst-affected areas.
But Derichebourg said Wednesday it would stop intervening after threats from strikers “to block the entrances and exits to our site if we continued collections for health reasons, which are legal and contractual”, company executive Thomas Derichebourg told AFP.
Although Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has urged Paris city authorities to order workers back to work on health grounds, Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo has refused, writing on Wednesday that the protests were “fair”.
Elsewhere, workers from the CFE-CGC trade union in the south of France claimed Wednesday that they had cut the electricity supply to a presidential island retreat in the Mediterranean used by Macron for his summer holidays.
Opinion polls show that two-thirds of French people oppose the pension reform and support the protest movement.
Trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes over the last six weeks.
If Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne fails to find a workable majority in the parliament on Thursday, she could use a power contained in article 49.3 of the constitution, enabling her to ram the legislation through without a vote.
Analysts say forcing it through in this way by decree would deprive her and Macron of democratic legitimacy, however, and would expose the government to a confidence vote, which it might lose.
“We don’t want the 49.3,” government spokesman Olivier Veran said on Sunday. “We want there to be a positive vote for this bill.”
Macron met Borne and senior ministers for last-ditch talks on Wednesday evening to discuss strategy ahead of a vote that could be a turning point for his second term in office.
If the reform is voted in, one question will be whether the unions and demonstrators continue their protests and strikes, or whether the movement fizzles out — something seen in previous standoffs with the unions.
“It’s a last cry from the working population to say that we don’t want retirement at 64,” the head of the CFDT union, Laurent Berger, told reporters as he joined a march during nationwide protests on Wednesday.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and hard-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon are hoping to capitalise on Macron’s unpopularity, having lost out to the former investment banker in last year’s presidential election.
The political implications of voting through a reform opposed by most of the population are also uncertain for Macron and the country at large.