PARIS -- France’s parliament on Monday started debating a deeply controversial pension bill aiming to raise the minimum retirement age that’s touched off a wave of strikes and large street demonstrations, with more protests set to come this week.
The lower house, the National Assembly, began debating the planned raising of the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 a day before a 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 in 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.”
Despite opinion polls consistently showing growing opposition to the reform and his own popularity shrinking, Macron insisted that he's living up to a key campaign pledge he made when he swept to power in 2017 and again ahead of his reelection in April.
Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt vigorously defended the bill Monday, saying: “We are here! I believe deeply in this reform. We will be part of improving our social model, we’re not deceiving people!”
Public Accounts Minister Gabriel Attal took it a step further by calling it a stark choice between “reform or bankruptcy.”
But left-wing opposition leaders said many voters cast their ballots for Macron without embracing his election platform, including pension reform. They argued votes for Macron in last year’s runoff were primarily cast to rebuff his far-right rival Marine Le Pen.
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 the government understands people's reluctance and concerns, but “we are asking French people for a collective effort." She said the reform aims to “save" the French pension system, which is expected to plunge into deficit in the coming decade in light of France's aging population.
More than 20,000 amendments have been proposed by opposition lawmakers — mostly by the left-wing Nupes coalition.
In a parliamentary election in June, Macron’s centrist alliance won the most seats but lost its majority. That led centrists to try and forge an alliance with The Republicans party, conservatives who have also in recent years tried to raise the retirement age.
The Republicans leader and lawmaker Eric Ciotti said in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper Saturday that a “very large majority” of his party would approve the reforms on condition that the government listens to its “accurate proposals."
That would secure passage through 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 ($1,298) per month, among other measures.
It would allow early retirement for those who had started working between 16 and 19 years of age, as well as for workers with serious health issues.
In response to a demand by The Republicans, Borne told the Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper that she agrees with allowing those who started working at age 20 to claim their pension at 63.
Some technical issues could complicate Macron's plans.
The government would have the legal power to enact the reforms through decrees if neither the National Assembly nor the Senate hold a vote on them before a 50-day deadline expires next month.
Analysts argue that could trigger allegations of skirting proper democratic debate in parliament on an such a major issue.
Moreover if the bill passes, the Constitutional Council is expected to rule on the reforms, possibly condensing its scope if they aren't deemed to be in line with the wider budget bill.