20 March 2023

French government survives first no-confidence vote in pensions bill row

20 March 2023

The French government has survived a no-confidence vote in the lower chamber of parliament and is expected to survive a second one, after its push last week to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The no-confidence motion filed by a small centrist group and supported by a coalition from the left received 278 votes on Monday, falling short of the 287 needed to pass.

Another motion at the initiative of the far-right is expected to get less support from other groups’ MPs.

The no-confidence motions were filed by MPs furious that President Emmanuel Macron ordered the use of special constitutional powers to force through an unpopular bill raising the retirement age without giving them a vote.

The Senate, dominated by conservatives who back the retirement plan, approved the legislation last week.

The no-confidence motions each need the backing of 287 MPs, or half the seats in the National Assembly, to pass.

Both initiatives appeared unlikely to succeed, since Mr Macron’s centrist alliance has more seats than any other group in the lower chamber.

The head of The Republicans, Olivier Marleix, said his group would not vote in favour of the motions.

“We acknowledge the need for a reform to save our pension system and defend pensioners’ purchasing power,” he said during the debate on Monday.

A minority of conservative MPs could stray from the party line, but it remains to be seen whether they are willing to bring down Mr Macron’s government.

The climate of protest the pension reforms has sparked in parliament and on the streets means the outcome of voting in the National Assembly is not guaranteed. No such motion has succeeded since 1962.

Centrist MP Charles de Courson, who with his group introduced the motion supported by the left, deplored the government’s decision to use a special constitutional power to skirt a vote on the pension bill last week.

“How can we accept such contempt for parliament? How can we accept such conditions to examine a text which will have lasting effects on the lives of millions of our fellow citizens?” he said.

Hard-left MP Mathilde Panot told the government that “the people are looking at you like we look at someone who betrayed, with a mix of anger and disgust”.

Laure Lavalette, of the far-right National Rally party, said “no matter what the outcome is, you have failed to convince the French”.

The tensions in the political arena have been echoed on the streets, marked by intermittent protests and strikes in various sectors, from transport to energy and sanitation workers.

Rubbish in Paris is piling ever higher and reeking of rotting food on the 15th day of a strike by collectors.

The three main incinerators serving the French capital have been mostly blocked, as has a rubbish sorting centre northwest of Paris.

“The goal is to support the workers on strike in Paris, to put pressure on this government that wants to pass this unjust, brutal and useless and ineffective law,” said Kamel Brahmi, of the CGT union, speaking to workers at the Romainville sorting plant.

Some refineries that supply petrol stations are at least partially blocked, and transport minister Clement Beaune said on France-Info radio that he would take action if necessary to ensure that fuel still gets out.

Unions, demanding that the government simply withdraw the retirement bill, have called for new nationwide protests on Thursday.

If the no-confidence votes fail, the bill is considered adopted.

It is then expected to head to the constitutional council before becoming law, if validated by the body.

If a majority agrees, it would spell the end of the retirement reform plan and force the government to resign.

A new cabinet would be appointed. Mr Macron could retain prime minister Elisabeth Borne should he choose; no other name has been floated.

“I know the questions and concerns that this reform is raising. I know what it asks of many of our fellow citizens,” Ms Borne said Monday.

Mr Macron vowed to push the pension plan through, she said, out of “transparency” and “responsibility,” because it is needed to keep the system from diving into deficit amid France’s aging population.

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