French pensions: Government survives two confidence votes

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron’s government faced down not just one, but two no-confidence votes, allowing it to force an overhaul of the retirement system through the lower house of parliament early Wednesday despite months of protests.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Paris and other cities Tuesday to denounce th e pension changes, which they fear will oblige people to work longer for less money. Currently the eligibility age for a full pension is 62.

As lawmakers in the National Assembly accused Macron of “dictatorial” behavior in a debate that started Tuesday and lasted past midnight, protesters illuminated the Champs-Elysees with red flares and intoned the national anthem, the Marseillaise.

The pension reform prompted France’s worst strikes in decades throughout December and January, hobbling public transportation and disrupting schools, hospitals, courthouses and even opera houses.

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Now, demonstrators are angry at Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s decision last week to use a special constitutional power to push the retirement bill through the Assembly without a vote, to speed up the complex legislative process after the damaging strikes.

In response, opposition lawmakers from the left and from the right called two no-confidence votes Tuesday against Macron’s centrist government.

Dsepite all the public criticism Macron has faced, his Republic on the Move party has a large majority in the National Assembly, and the votes both fell far short of the 289 votes needed to pass.

That means the bill has now cleared the lower house, and goes next to the Senate, where conservatives have the majority.

The left wants to scrap the reform, fearing it weakens France’s welfare state and will force workers to rely on private pension funds, while some lawmakers on the right say it isn’t bold enough.

The prime minister defended his decision to force the bill through, and insisted the retirement reform was the only way to save France’s welfare system as the population gets older and life expectancy lengthens.

“This model is our most precious asset, it’s our national treasure,” Philippe told lawmakers. “We must fix it when it is not working, to be able to pass it on to our children.”

The government hopes to pass the law by summer. But debates on the bill in the lower house were slowed by a record 41,000 amendments proposed by the opposition.

New strikes and protests are planned March 31.

The bill itself doesn’t directly touch the pension age. But in parallel, the government is holding a three-month discussion with unions about financing the pension system, including potential measures to raise taxes or the retirement age. The hard-left CGT and FO unions oppose those measures and quit the talks.

The pension overhaul was a key promise in Macron’s 2017 presidential campaign. Macron argues the new system, which aims to unify 42 state-funded pension regimes, will be fairer and more sustainable.

The changes would end some specific pension schemes under which certain people, like railway workers, are allowed to retire as early as their 50s, and others, like lawyers, pay less taxes.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.

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