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French government faces big votes over unpopular pension overhaul

2023-03-20T15:35:41Z

Pension reform protesters in the western French city of Rennes on Monday (March 20) scuffled with police as they put up burning barricades to block traffic on a highway.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government faces two motions of no confidence in the National Assembly on Monday after bypassing the lower house to push through a deeply unpopular change to the pension system.

Monday’s votes look unlikely to pass, though the motion tabled by a centrist party could be tight.

A successful no confidence vote would fell the government and kill the legislation, which is set to raise the retirement age by two years to 64.

Violent unrest has erupted and trade unions have promised to intensify strike action, leaving Macron facing the most dangerous challenge to his authority since the “Yellow Vest” protests over four years ago.

“It’s not a failure, it’s a total train wreck,” Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT trade union, told the newspaper Liberation.

To bring down the government, Macron’s opponents require the support of a majority of the 577 lawmakers, in an alliance that would need to span from the hard left to the far right.

The debate began around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT) and was expected to last around an hour and a half, before the votes on the centrist motion of no confidence, backed by a wide number of groups, and another put forward by the far-right National Rally.

“You failed to convince, so you chose the easy way out,” centrist lawmaker Charles de Courson told the government as he opened the debate on the no confidence motions. “You clearly distorted the spirit of the constitution.”

Senior officials from the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party have said they will not back the no-confidence motions, but there are rebels in their ranks.

One of them, Aurelien Pradie, who was ousted as No 2 in the party over his opposition to the legislation, said about 15 LR lawmakers were ready to back the tripartisan motion tabled by de Courson’s centrist party and others – still below the 26 or so needed for the motion to succeed.

“The numbers don’t add up,” another LR rebel, Fabien Di Filippo, told Reuters.

But proponents of the no-confidence vote urged more LR lawmakers to back it. “Don’t be afraid,” centrist MP Bertrand Pancher told LR lawmakers.

“It can come down to just a few votes,” he told Reuters.

Even if the motions fall short, Macron’s failure to find enough support in parliament to put his pension system overhaul to a vote has undermined his reformist agenda and weakened his leadership, observers say.

“The government would remain in place, although it would be significantly weakened, while social protests against the reform would likely continue for some weeks, which could negatively affect the French economy,” Barclays said in a briefing note.

An Elabe opinion survey indicated that two thirds of French people wanted the government to fall.

Other surveys had Macron’s personal popularity falling to its lowest since the 2018/2019 Yellow Vest protests, a grassroots protest campaign against higher diesel taxes that morphed into a broader anti-government movement.

Protesters on a motorway near the western city of Rennes scuffled with police on Monday as they put up burning barricades to block traffic.

And small groups of protesters gathered in a central Paris square ahead of the votes in parliament.

“The real violence is not in the street, it’s in the reform,” said 60-year old Christine Lassalle, a member of FO, one of France’s main unions.

At the same rally, 37-year-old FO unionist Thomas Roger said the fight against the reform would continue if the no confidence motions failed.

Several metro stations near the lower house of parliament were closed and police were dispatched to prevent clashes.

Meanwhile, rolling strikes at refineries entered a 13th day. At liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, the strike was extended until March 27 at the three terminals operated by Engie subsidiary Elengy, a union representative said.

France’s main unions have announced a ninth nationwide day of strikes and protests on Thursday.

Related Galleries:

Firefighters and police officers work as smoke rises from burning materials on a highway during a protest against pension reform, in Rennes, France, March 20, 2023, in this image obtained from social media. Twitter @DHR_Damien/via REUTERS

Member of parliament Charles de Courson of centrist group Liot talks to journalists at the National Assembly before debates and votes on two motions of no-confidence against the French government, tabled by centrist group Liot and far-right Rassemblement National party, after the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers, in Paris, France, March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Police officers work near a burning barricade on a highway amid a protest against pension reform, in Rennes, France, March 20, 2023, in this image obtained from social media. Twitter @DHR_Damien/via REUTERS

Smoke rises from a burning barricade on highway during a protest against pension reform, in Rennes, France, March 20, 2023, in this image obtained from social media. Twitter @DHR_Damien/via REUTERS

A person carries a flare during a protest against pension reform, in Rennes, France, March 20, 2023, in this image obtained from social media. Twitter @DHR_Damien/via REUTERS

French police stand in front of the National Assembly before debates and votes on two motions of no-confidence against the French government, tabled by centrist group Liot and far-right Rassemblement National party, after the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers, in Paris, France, March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Member of parliament Charles de Courson of centrist group Liot talks to journalists at the National Assembly before debates and votes on two motions of no-confidence against the French government, tabled by centrist group Liot and far-right Rassemblement National party, after the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers, in Paris, France, March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

People attend a demonstration to protest the use by French government of the article 49.3, a special clause in the French Constitution, to push the pensions reform bill through the National Assembly without a vote by lawmakers, in Nantes, France, March 18, 2023. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A general view shows the hemicycle before a debate on the pensions reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, France, March 16, 2023. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
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