Anger flares anew over France’s divisive pension reforms

PARIS (AP) — France’s government invoked a sparingly used special power last Saturday to push contested pension reforms though parliament without a vote by furious opposition lawmakers.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s surprise announcement that he was cutting short debate in the National Assembly was the latest twist in the difficult birth of the pension shake-up that has sparked sustained protests and weeks of crippling strikes.

The constitutional power Philippe invoked to force the pension bill through the assembly without a vote previously had been used fewer than 100 times since modern France was founded in 1958.

The government has become increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of the bill, held up by thousands of opposition amendments. Philippe told parliament he was invoking the power “not to end debate but to end this episode of non-debate”.

He said he got approval to do so during a special Cabinet meeting last Saturday that focussed on France’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

French President Emmanuel Macron chairs a meeting concerning the COVID-19 situation in France on February 29 at the Elysee Palace in Paris. PHOTO: AP

The decision provoked howls of disapproval from opposition lawmakers. Some accused Philippe of trying to sneak the divisive pension reform through while public attention is focussed on the coronavirus crisis.

Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon accused Philippe’s government of “brutalising” the opposition. Opposition lawmakers scrambled to try to thwart the move.

But their efforts to organise a censure vote looked doomed to fail because Philippe’s government has a comfortable parliamentary majority. Changing and streamlining the retirement system is a priority for French President Emmanuel Macron. But the government’s plans triggered street protests, France’s longest transportation strike in decades and widespread workforce fears that the reform will result in lower pensions.

The changes would end some specific pension schemes under which certain people, like railway workers, are allowed to take early retirement.

Macron’s government wanted to raise the age for full retirement by two years to 64 but eased off the move after the strikes, which began in early December and ran six weeks.