French court to have final say on pensions reform

AFP , Friday 14 Apr 2023

France's Constitutional Council on Friday prepared to hand down its verdict on President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular pension reform, which could clear the way for the changes to be implemented.

Toulouse, France
People take to the streets during a demonstration on the day of a ruling from France s Constitutional Council on a contested pension reform pushed by the French government, in Toulouse, southwestern France, on April 14, 2023. AFP


Barriers have been erected in the streets near the court in central Paris and anti-riot police have been deployed to guard its headquarters, with potentially violent protests feared later when the decision is announced at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).

The country has been rocked by three months of demonstrations and strikes over Macron's bid to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62, with around two in three voters against the changes, according to polls.

Experts believe the most likely scenario on Friday is that the nine-member Constitutional Council will censure some non-essential parts of the legislation but approve the main elements.

"The council will likely follow the course it always had -- not to counter big social or societal reforms," constitutional expert Laureline Fontaine told AFP.

But labour unions and opposition lawmakers are still hoping for a decision to strike down the changes that Macron championed during his first period in office and put at the heart of his second term which began last May.

'No margin for manoeuvre'

A rejection of the law "would be a disaster for Emmanuel Macron," political journalist Ludovic Vigogne, who has written a recent book on the president, told RTL radio on Friday.

"He would have no margin for manoeuvre... it would be such a huge victory for his political opponents."

Police are expecting up to 10,000 protesters in the capital later Friday, including hundreds of radical leftists, a source told AFP.

Several possible demonstrations are being monitored at the city town hall and at the Louvre Museum, not far from the Constitutional Council.

Having repeatedly dismissed calls for talks with union leaders in recent weeks, Macron invited unions for talks on Tuesday "whatever the decision of the court", said a presidential official, asking not to be named.

But the BFMTV channel said unions swiftly rejected the offer, saying they did not want to meet before the May 1 labour day when new mass protests are planned.

Inspecting the tortuous restoration efforts four years after the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral, Macron indicated he had no intention to yield in any area.

"Stay the course, that's my motto," he said.

Partial approval?

Senior ruling party MP Eric Woerth said he expected "the core part" of the law to be approved but conceded that "we have not convinced people."

"Once the volcano has cooled down and people look at things with a bit more distance, maybe in the back of their minds they'll say, 'maybe they were right'... the French pension system needed unpopular decisions to conserve it," he told Europe 1 radio.

Many demonstrations have turned violent since Macron's government forced the bill through parliament last month without a vote, using an executive power that is legal but has sparked accusations of undemocratic behaviour from opponents.

Some 380,000 people took to the streets nationwide on Thursday in the latest day of union-led action against the bill since January, according to the interior ministry.

But that was far fewer that the nearly 1.3 million who demonstrated at the height of the protests in March.

As well as ruling on whether the pensions legislation and the way it was passed is in line with the constitution, the council must also decide on whether to approve an opposition demand for a referendum on an alternative pensions law.

It is not yet clear whether it will give its go-ahead, but the path towards any actual referendum would be long and uncertain.

"We have very good arguments to ask for a complete censure (of the law)," left-wing MP Mathilde Panot told LCI television on Friday.

CFDT union leader Laurent Berger has said that if the bill is only partially approved, it should be re-examined in parliament.

Surveys show that about two in three French people are against the pension changes, with critics arguing they are unfair for women and unskilled workers who started working early in life.

But the government says the reform is essential to stop the system from falling into heavy deficits in coming decades and bring France in line with the rest of Europe where people typically retire later.

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