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France“s unpopular pension law faces key constitution test


People react amid tear gas during clashes at a demonstration as protester gather on Place de la Bastille as part of the 12th day of nationwide strikes and protests against French government’s pension reform, in Paris, France, April 13, 2023. REUTERS/Stephanie Lecocq/File Photo

France’s Constitutional Council will on Friday give its hotly-anticipated verdict on whether the government’s plans to increase the retirement age, which have triggered massive protests, are in line with constitutional rules.

The stakes are high.

The government hopes for a green light, likely with minor caveats, that could discourage protests and allow it to enact the bill, which increases the state pension age by two years to 64, and move on to other reforms.

“The country must continue to move forward, work, and face the challenges that await us,” President Emmanuel Macron said during a state visit to the Netherlands.

But unions and the opposition warn that months of fractious debates and protests on the pension bill, which the government pushed through parliament without a vote for lack of a majority, won’t go away quickly, even if it gets the Council’s approval.

Unions – and protesters – will pressure Macron not to promulgate the law, and try to find another way out.

Macron must withdraw this bill “or he won’t be able to rule this country,” the new head of the hardline CGT union, Sophie Binet, said on Thursday, warning of more strikes to come.

“We still hope that, at some point, someone in high places will decide to abandon this law, sit around a table and look at pension funding differently,” 52-year-old postal service worker Francis Bourget said at a rally in Paris.

And the opposition hopes to organise a citizens’ referendum. It’s a long shot, with many hoops to jump through, but could still dog the government for months, while the opposition tries to gather the nearly five million signatures it would need to push this through.

A source close to Macron said the government was likely to quickly promulgate the bill in the official journal, possibly early next week, if it gets the Council’s green light, to try to move on.

The Council’s decision is expected late afternoon or early evening, likely after 1600 GMT. It could strike down the bill, but this is something it has rarely done and constitutional experts and government sources see this as unlikely.

Alternatively, and more likely experts and government sources say, is that the Council approves the raising of the legal retirement age, but strikes down some measures designed to boost employment for older workers on the grounds that they do not belong in a social security budget bill.

Political observers say the widespread discontent over the government’s reform could have longer-term repercussions, including a possible boost for the far right.

“I’m not that optimistic about the Constitutional Council’s decision,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who opposes the pension legislation, said earlier this week. “But what do you want me to do? Burn cars? We’ll just tell the French: Vote for the National Rally.”

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