French parliament debates Macron's divisive pension bill
France's parliament on Monday started debating a fiercely contested pension bill that's triggered recent strikes and large street demonstrations, with more protests set to come this week.
The lower house, the National Assembly, began debating the plans that would raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. The parliamentary session comes one day before Tuesday's third round of protests called by eight main workers' unions, with more demonstrations planned Saturday.
French President Emmanuel Macron's government is now facing a harsh political battle at parliament that could span weeks or months.
Macron vowed to go ahead with the changes -- his second presidential term's flagship legislation -- which he described last week as "indispensable when you compare to (other countries) in Europe."
Faced with opinion polls repeatedly showing that a growing majority of people are against the reform, and his own popularity shrinking, Macron argues that it was a key electoral promise he made when he was reelected in April -- and even when he swept to power in 2017 -- and therefore it is legitimate for him to go ahead with the changes.
Yet leftist opposition leaders say many voters picked him to reject far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the run-off ballot last year, while disagreeing with his electoral platform.
Last week, an estimated 1.27 million people took to the streets, according to authorities, more than in the first big protest day on Jan. 19. Unions and political opponents hope massive mobilization will force the government to revise its plans.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said "we are asking French people for a collective effort. I understand it provokes reactions, reluctance and concerns," in an interview Sunday to the Journal du Dimanche newspaper. She argued the plan aims at "saving" the French pension system, which is expected to dive in a deficit in the coming decade amid France's aging population.
More than 20,000 amendments have been proposed by opposition lawmakers at the National Assembly -- mostly by the left-wing Nupes coalition, whose members seek to demonstrate their vehement opposition.
In a parliamentary election in June, Macron's centrist alliance won the most seats but lost its majority in the National Assembly.
The situation led the centrists to try to forge an alliance with The Republicans party over pension changes, since the conservatives in recent years have pushed to raise the retirement age and appear inclined to vote in favor of the bill.
Eric Ciotti, the president of The Republicans and a lawmaker, said in an interview Saturday with Le Parisien newspaper that a "very large majority" of the conservatives will approve it on the condition that the government listens to their "accurate proposals."
Such a scenario would allow the text to pass both at the National Assembly and the Senate, where The Republicans have a majority.
The bill would gradually increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030 and accelerate a planned measure providing that people must have worked for at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension. It would also raise the minimum pension for a full career to 1,200 euros (US$1,298) per month, among other measures.
It would allow early retirement for those who have started working between the ages of 16 and 19, and workers with major health issues.
In response to a demand from The Republicans, Borne told the Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper that she agrees with extending early retirement to those who have started working at age 20 and would therefore be able to leave at 63.
Some technical obstacles may also get in the way of Macron's plans.
Instead of a regular bill, the government chose to introduce the changes through a social security budget bill, which accelerates the legislative process.
If the National Assembly doesn't hold a vote during the first hearing scheduled for Feb. 17, the bill would still be sent to the Senate. And if both houses don't manage to vote before a 50-day deadline ending in March, the government would be entitled to pass the measure through decrees.
However, experts say the use of such power applied to a major reform could be widely perceived as a denial of democratic debate at parliament.
In addition, if the bill passes, the Constitutional Council is expected to rule on both the process and the substance of the text -- possibly reducing the scope of the changes if it considers they aren't in line with a budget bill.
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