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Mar 15, 2023
French Protesters Take to Streets as Pension Bill Nears Showdown
(Bloomberg) -- French unions held strikes and marches against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age, seeking to put pressure on lawmakers as the proposed reform of the pension system was readied for a final vote on Thursday.
The protests coincided with a meeting of a joint committee from both houses of parliament that agreed on a bill that maintained the core principle of raising France’s minimum retirement age to 64 from 62.
The eighth day of action against the pension overhaul saw 480,000 people turn out across the country, according to the Interior Ministry. This was well below the 1.28 million record turnout a week ago.
While government figures also showed a sharp decline in the number of public sector workers on strike on Wednesday, walkouts led to some disruption.
As many as three-fifths of commuter trains on routes serving the Paris region were canceled, according to operator SNCF. Airlines were ordered by the aviation authority to cut 20% of flights at Paris’s Orly airport.
However, subway services in the capital ran almost as normal on most lines, according to transportation company RATP. Only a handful of international Eurostar services have been scrapped.
Fuel deliveries from French refineries, including those owned by TotalEnergies SE and Exxon Mobil Corp., have been affected by strikes for days.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the protests is trash in the streets of cities including Paris, where some 7,000 tons of waste have been left to pile up by striking garbage collectors in recent days, leading to a public spat between the government and Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo. The CGT FTDNEEA union has extended the walkout until Monday.
A group gathering France’s main unions called on workers to continue the protests on Thursday and urged lawmakers to vote against the bill.
While the joint parliamentary committee, which had a largely pro-government composition, produced a unified bill relatively smoothly, Thursday’s vote at the National Assembly will be perilous since Macron lost his absolute majority there in elections last year.
His centrist party has tried to secure the support of the conservative Republicains, who have traditionally backed increasing the retirement age. But forecasts indicate a tight count, putting the whole reform at risk of defeat if it goes to a floor vote.
“We are convinced that there is a majority for the text,” Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt told CNews TV. “We will have a majority on Thursday.”
Still, the government could head off a vote if it calculates that the risks of defeat are too high and instead use a constitutional provision known as article 49.3 to bypass parliament. Yet doing so could further stoke the anger of protesters, while also exposing it to the risk of a no-confidence vote.
“The government is clearly not listening to people’s anger but we must continue to protest because the reform is so harsh and unfair,” said Maria da Costa, a 61-year-old city of Paris employee. “If we give up, Macron will feel empowered to come up with more and more reforms that will only make our lives more difficult.”
--With assistance from Vidya Root.
(Updates with protest turnout in third paragraph, union statement in eighth paragraph.)
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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