French people hoping to preserve their retirement benefits took to the streets in a nationwide protest on Wednesday as a committee of lawmakers met behind closed doors to approve the wording of President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular pension plan.
Macron likely has the means on the joint Senate and National Assembly committee to advance his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, but it remains to be seen whether it can command a parliamentary majority. If not, Macron would have to impose the unpopular changes unilaterally.
Unions are hoping some 200 protests across the country will demonstrate the political consequences of such changes, which Macron has promoted as central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive.
Economic challenges have prompted widespread unrest across Western Europe. In Britain on Wednesday, teachers, junior doctors, and public transport staff were striking for higher wages to match rising prices.
And Spain's left-wing government joined with labor unions to announce a “historic” deal to save its pension system by raising social security costs for higher wage earners.
Spain's solution is exactly what French unions would like, but Macron has absolutely refused to raise taxes, saying it would make the country’s economy less competitive. Something must be done, the president has argued, with France’s retired population expected to increase from 16 to 21 million people by 2050.
Loud music and huge union balloons kicked off the Paris demonstration, near Napoleon’s tomb at the gold-dome Invalides. An array of banners set the tone: “They say capitalism. We say fight,” read one. Others said “Paris enraged,” or “If rights aren’t defended, they’ll be trampled.”
“If we don’t speak up now then all our rights that the French have fought for will be lost,” said Nicolas Durand, a 33-year-old actor. “Macron is out of touch, and in bed with the rich. It’s easy for the people in government to say work harder, but their lives have been easy.”
A garbage workers' strike on its 10th day has left Paris awash in piles of rancid rubbish, which police ordered cleared out along the march route the night before for security reasons. Troublemakers used garbage to start fires or throw trash at police in recent demonstrations.
Marchers accompanied by a heavy security force moved through the Left Bank along unencumbered streets. One group of black-clad troublemakers formed and attacked a small business, police said, adding that nine people had been detained three hours after the start of the march.
Ten of the 14 members of the committee of seven senators and seven National Assembly lawmakers are on record supporting the bill, so they're expected to reach an accord on the final text. The Senate, whose conservative majority favors raising the retirement age, is expected to approve it on Thursday.
The situation at the National Assembly is much more complicated.
Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in legislative elections last year, forcing the government to count on conservatives' votes to pass the bill. Leftists and far-right lawmakers are strongly opposed.
The leader of the Assembly's conservative Republicans, Eric Ciotti, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper that “the highest interest of the nation ... commands us to vote for the reform.” But his side is divided and some are planning to vote against or abstain, making the outcome unpredictable.
With no guarantee of a majority, Macron's government is facing a dilemma: A vote Thursday afternoon in the National Assembly would give more legitimacy to the bill if adopted, but there's a risk it would be rejected.
Macron could instead force the bill through parliament without a vote, risking immediate criticism from the political opposition and unions about the lack of democratic debate.
French government spokesperson Olivier Véran said Wednesday that the bill will continue its way through the legislative process, respecting “all the rules that are provided by our Constitution.”
Véran spoke after a weekly Cabinet meeting during which the government did not discuss whether to use its special constitutional power.
Republicans party lawmaker Aurelien Pradié — who opposes the reforms — said Wednesday that if this special power were used he would challenge its democratic legitimacy by going to the constitutional council, a higher French legal body.
Train drivers, school teachers, dock workers, oil refinery workers, and others joined garbage collectors in walking off their jobs on Wednesday, maneuvering past thousands of tons of garbage piling up on the sidewalks of Paris and other French cities.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin asked Paris City Hall to force some of the garbage workers to return to work, calling it a public health issue.
The Paris mayor, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, said she supports the strike. Government spokesperson Véran warned that if she doesn't comply, the Interior Ministry is ready to act instead.
Public transport, meanwhile has been disrupted by the strikes: About 40% of high-speed trains and half the regional trains have been canceled. The Paris Metro has slowed, and France's aviation authority warned of delays, saying 20% of the flights at Paris-Orly airport have been canceled.
“It will be those who work the hardest who will get a bad deal. It’s always like that," said Magali Brutel, a 41-year-old nurse. "Very rich people could pay more in taxes — that’s a good solution to pay for an aging population. Why are we effectively taxing the oldest and the poorest?”