France Holds Its Breath Over Tense Pension Vote After Large Protests
France’s Senate approved President Emmanuel Macron’s widely unpopular plans to raise the retirement age by two years on Thursday, setting the stage for a decisive, if far more unpredictable, vote in the National Assembly, the lower house, later in the day.
After waves of protests and rolling strikes that disrupted public transportation and left garbage piling up, all eyes were on the National Assembly, where the vote could be extremely close, capping a two-month showdown between the French government and labor unions that is testing Mr. Macron’s political agenda.
Most notably, the legislation would increase the age when most workers are able to retire with a government pension to 64, from 62, prompting hundreds of thousands of protesters opposed to the pension changes marched in cities around France on Wednesday. Smaller demonstrations were expected on Thursday as well.
“We are facing a vote that will determine the next 15 years of our country and of our fellow citizens’ lives, a vote for a generation,” Gabriel Attal, the budget minister, told the French Senate on Thursday. “Do we or don’t we want to guarantee to the soon-to-be 20 million retirees that they can count on a financed pension, so that they can preserve a way of life they are not willing to sacrifice?”
The French government, still uncertain that it has convinced enough lawmakers to pass the bill in the lower house, appeared on edge. Mr. Macron twice convened his top allies for last-minute meetings on Thursday ahead of the vote.
Leaders of the major labor unions that have been spearheading the demonstrations and strikes were gathering in front of the National Assembly at midday and urged lawmakers to vote against the pension bill.
For Mr. Macron, who has spent much of his time since re-election last year focused on diplomatic issues like the war in Ukraine, getting the legislation passed is crucial for his domestic legacy. He cannot run again in 2027, as France’s Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive five-year terms.
“If the overhaul is approved, it means that Macron has a new political space to reform,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political science professor at Sciences Po in Paris. Mr. Macron, he said, “will, in a way, regain his domestic image as a reform-minded president.”
The parliamentary votes on Thursday came a day after a small committee of 14 lawmakers from both houses agreed on a common version of the pension bill.
The Senate, France’s upper house, had been widely expected to pass the bill, because it is controlled by mainstream conservatives who mostly favor the pension overhaul and already passed a previous version of it.
But in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house, Mr. Macron’s party and its allies have only a slim majority. The outcome of a vote there on Thursday afternoon — or whether there will even be a vote — is still unclear.
At the heart of that uncertainty lies a difficult choice for Mr. Macron.
Is he confident that enough lawmakers will back the bill and let his government go ahead with a vote? That might soften criticism that the government acted undemocratically by using all the constitutional tools at its disposal to rush the bill through, but it could lead to a stinging defeat.
Or will the government use a legal tool to ram the changes through without a vote, guaranteeing passage but fueling anger in the streets? It is a risk at a time when French trust in political institutions is at its lowest point since the Yellow Vest protests of Mr. Macron’s first term, according to a recent study.
“The government has the choice between Russian roulette or the Big Bertha,” Bruno Retailleau, a top senator with the conservative Republican party, has said to sum up the dilemma, referring to Germany’s famous World War I-era howitzer.
Over the past week, the French news media and politicians have been frantically gauging the views of individual lawmakers and counting anticipated votes to assess the bill’s chances in the National Assembly. Arcane parliamentary procedures are suddenly in the spotlight. Lawmakers on the far left even began live-tweeting the proceedings of the small committee of lawmakers that met on Wednesday.
Such gripping parliamentary drama was rare during Mr. Macron’s first term, when his party and its allies had a strong majority that backed almost all of his policies and he had little need to reach across the aisle or engage in last-minute back-room dealing.
Mr. Macron’s government says that as the ratio of workers to retirees decreases, it needs to prevent long-term deficits in the pension system, for which workers and employers pay payroll taxes.
Opponents dispute both the urgency and the method of Mr. Macron’s overhaul, accusing him of chipping at a cherished right and unfairly burdening blue-collar workers because of his refusal to increase taxes on the wealthy.
In addition to raising the legal retirement age, the bill would abolish special pension rules that benefit workers in sectors like energy and transportation and increase the number of years one must pay into the system to collect a full pension. It would provide some exceptions for those who started their careers at a young age.
Because Mr. Macron’s party, Renaissance, and its allies no longer enjoy an absolute majority in the National Assembly, they have to rely on the Republicans, whose leaders have expressed support for the bill but whose members appear more divided. A handful of lawmakers from Mr. Macron’s own party and its allies have also expressed discomfort with his proposal.
The constitutional tool the government could use to push the bill through — known as the 49.3, the article of the French Constitution it stems from — lets the government pass a bill without a vote but exposes it to a no-confidence motion. If that motion were to pass, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and her ministers would have to resign, and the bill would be rejected.
While Mr. Macron’s left-wing and far-right opponents would gladly sign on to a no-confidence motion, most Republican lawmakers, even those opposed to the pension bill, are reluctant to topple the government, meaning such a step would most likely fail, letting the pension measure stand.
Protesters marching in Paris on Wednesday denounced any use of Article 49.3, saying it would be a breach of the democratic process. “If they dare to use the 49.3,” one union leader shouted to a booing crowd, “we will hold them responsible!”
Ms. Borne used the tactic several times in the fall to enact finance measures, but the government has said repeatedly that it wants to avoid doing so in this case.
While it is hard to predict the long-term ramifications of the vote on Thursday, Mr. Perrineau, the political analyst, said that past pension protests had often dissipated after Parliament had its say.
“The reform is unpopular, there is a strong protest movement, public opinion more or less supports it, but then the National Assembly votes and the movement fizzles,” Mr. Perrineau said.
In 2010, for instance, President Nicolas Sarkozy successfully raised the legal age of retirement to 62 from 60 despite large street demonstrations.
While polls have consistently shown that roughly two-thirds of French public opinion disapprove of Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul, studies have also found that most people think it will pass.
Catherine Porter and Constant Méheut contributed reporting.