French senators to start debating contested pension plan

By Sylvie Corbet

PARIS (AP) – The French Senate started debating President Emmanuel Macron’s contested pension plan Thursday, and the centrist government hopes to find a compromise with conservative members of the upper house of parliament to be able to push the bill through.

Macron has vowed to go ahead with the bill, which aims to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, despite nationwide demonstrations and strikes and opinion polls consistently showing a majority of French people oppose the change.

Workers unions and youth organizations pledged to “bring France to a standstill” during the next protest, which is scheduled for March 7.

The National Assembly’s two-week discussion last month has featured flaring tempers and thousands of amendments proposed mostly by the left-wing opposition, making it impossible for lawmakers to examine the full bill.

At the Senate, which is dominated by members of The Republicans party, the legislation is expected to get a more positive reception. Conservative senators have pushed for years to raise the minimum retirement age.

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt argued Thursday that France’s pension system would be running at a deficit within 10 years “if we do nothing.”

Macron made revising the pension system a flagship priority of his second term. Dussopt described the legislation under consideration as “a promise delivered” by the president’s government.

“To make this reform, it’s also having the courage to conduct it and face the inherent difficulties,” the minister said as the debate got underway.

The head of The Republicans senators, Bruno Retailleau, said in a recent interview with Le Parisien newspaper that “we want to vote” for the bill “after making changes.”

Conservative senators are proposing an amendment to grant a 5% pension bonus to working mothers. Government officials said they were open to discussion on including such a measure.

The Republicans senators also support creating a special contract to incite companies to keep or hire older workers close to retirement, in exchange for paying less taxes.

The debate is scheduled to last until the end of next week.

If the bill is approved by the Senate, it will continue making its way through France’s complex legislative process.

A committee made up of legislators from both houses of parliament will then seek a potential deal on a joint version of the text, to be eventually presented for approval at the National Assembly and then the Senate by the end of the month.

Macron’s centrist alliance has the most seats in the National Assembly, but lost its majority in legislative elections last year. Therefore, it needs to count on the support from the right to be able to pass the bill.

Yet some Republican lawmakers have publicly expressed their disagreement and said they won’t approve it, making the outcome of a vote at the National Assembly hard to predict.

Another option for the government would be to use a special constitutional power to force the bill through without a vote – a risky choice given such a decision would be highly unpopular.