PARIS (AP) — Sparks are flying over French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age — not just in the streets, but in parliament too. The proposed pension reforms have unleashed the most turbulent debate in years in the National Assembly, with uncertainty looming over the final outcome.
Tensions at parliament are fed by the unpopularity of the reform aimed at raising the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and requiring people to have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension, amid other measures.
The bill started being examined in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, last week. Over 20,000 amendments have been proposed, mostly by the leftist opposition coalition Nupes. This makes the debate almost impossible to finish before a Friday night deadline. The government denounced the tactic.
“What do our fellow citizens see? asked Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne at the National Assembly on Tuesday. “A held-up debate — held up by the multiplication of amendments… held up by the multiplication of insults… held up by abhorrent personal attacks.”
In recent days, multiple incidents have marked the debate, from legislators shouting and interrupting each other to insulting remarks toward a minister. In addition, a leftist lawmaker was excluded for 15 days after he tweeted a photo of himself and a soccer ball representing the head of Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt.
On Monday, another lawmaker of the hard-left France Unbowed party called Dussopt “a murderer” while speaking about growing numbers of fatal workplace accidents in France, prompting outrage across the Assembly’s ranks. The lawmaker apologized.
If the debate is not over in the lower house by Friday, the bill will be sent without a vote to the Senate. The end of the legislative process is not expected before next month.
The parliamentary situation is challenging for Macron, who has made the reform the centerpiece of his second term in office. In last year’s elections, his centrist alliance won the most seats but lost its majority in the National Assembly. That allowed opposition lawmakers from the left and the right to reject article 2 of the bill — requiring companies to publish reports about the proportion of older employees — in a vote late on Tuesday evening. The debate was to resume Wednesday.
The speaker of the National Assembly, Yael Braun-Pivet, said on RTL radio that the situation is “serious” because “we have been demonstrating for a week … that we are not able to conduct a democratic debate up to the French people’s expectations.”
Last week, Braun-Pivet also reported that the bill had triggered anonymous voicemails, graffiti and a threatening letter to the head of the chamber’s Social Affairs Committee.
Alexis Corbière, vice-president of the France Unbowed group at the National Assembly, defended lawmakers’ actions in the debate.
“If you blame lawmakers for proposing amendments, it’s as if you’re blaming butchers for cutting meat or bakers for making bread … A lawmaker is about speaking. If you want silent MPs, try totalitarian societies, but here, fortunately, we are in a democracy,” he said.
Sebastien Chenu, vice-president of the far-right National Rally party, which opposes the pension plan, denounced the toxic atmosphere in parliament.
“I believe that this government is irresponsible for having given too little time to debate and that the Nupes coalition is completely irresponsible in creating a blockade when we must … vote against (the bill),” he said.
Opinion polls consistently show the pension plan is widely unpopular — yet they also show a majority of the French believe it will still be implemented.
“I first want the work to be able to continue at parliament,” Macron said last week. “That’s how democracy must function.”
He also urged unions to show a “spirit of responsibility” and “not block the life of the rest of the country” while staging protest actions.
A fifth round of demonstrations and strikes is scheduled on Thursday. Nearly 1 million people took to the streets in the latest protest day Saturday according to authorities — up to 2.5 million according to the CGT union, one of the organizers.
Macron’s alliance hopes it will get support from conservative legislators to ultimately be able to pass the bill.
The Republicans party said in a statement Tuesday the French pension system “will collapse in five to 10 years” without changes. That’s why, despite being in the opposition, the party decided to support the reform, it said.
Yet some Republican lawmakers have publicly expressed their disagreement with the bill and said they won’t approve it, making the outcome of the vote hard to predict.
In addition, if legislators don’t manage to vote on the text by the end of next month, the government could choose to use a special constitutional power to force the bill through. Such a decision would be highly unpopular.
AP journalists Jeffrey Schaeffer, Oleg Cetinic and Catherine Gaschka contributed to the story.