Macron wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 under a flagship reform of his second term

Paris (AFP) - A proposed reform of France’s pension system, which has sparked massive protests and strikes since the start of the year, is poised for a final vote in parliament on Thursday in a decisive moment for President Emmanuel Macron.

The Senate adopted the legislation to raise the retirement age to 64 on Thursday morning, but a ballot in the lower house National Assembly scheduled for the afternoon is seen as extremely tight.

Macron’s minority government is dependent on the opposition Republicans (LR) party MPs for support and the ultimate winning or losing margin could come down to a handful of votes.

After months of negotiations, “everyone wants a moment of truth”, a senior figure in Macron’s Renaissance party told AFP on condition of anonymity, although the president was still consulting allies into the late morning.

A vote would be “very, very, very risky” in the lower house, top-ranking Republicans senator Bruno Retailleau told the Public Senat channel on Thursday.

A loss for the government would be a humiliation for Macron less than a year after he secured a second term with a manifesto that urged the French to “work more” in order to pay for the country’s generous social security system.

The proposed changes have sparked sometimes violent protests

If he feels the risk is too great, he could order Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to ram the legislation through the Assembly without a vote using a controversial power contained in article 49.3 of the constitution.

Forcing through the legislation in this way, after months of demonstrations and in the face of overwhelmingly hostile public opinion, would risk inflaming the protest movement.

A dissolution of the hung parliament is another option for the 45-year-old leader.

- Garbage piles -

Trains, schools, public services and ports have been affected by strikes over the last six weeks, while some of the biggest protests in decades have taken place.

An estimated 1.28 million people hit the streets on March 7.

A rolling strike by municipal garbage collectors in Paris has seen around 7,000 tonnes of uncollected trash pile up in the streets, attracting rats and dismaying tourists.

Rubbish has piled up in Paris over the last week due to a strike by garbage collectors

The strike has been extended until next Monday, with the prospect of serious public health problems leading to growing calls for authorities to intervene.

City police chief Laurent Nunez informed mayor Anne Hidalgo on Wednesday evening that the government would use its power to “requisition” workers, meaning some of them will be forced them back to work under threat of prosecution.

Hidalgo has defended the protests as “fair”, although her office has contracted private refuse companies to clear trash in some areas, including in front of schools and creches.

Elsewhere, workers from the CFE-CGC trade union in the south of France claimed Wednesday that they had cut the electricity supply to a presidential island retreat in the Mediterranean used by Macron for his summer holidays.

Opinion polls show that two-thirds of French people oppose the pension reform and support the protest movement.

- Minority government -

The government has argued that raising the retirement age, scrapping privileges for some public sector workers and toughening criteria for a full pension are needed to prevent major deficits building up.

The change would also bring France into line with its European neighbours, most of which have raised the retirement age to 65 or above.

Trade unions and other critics say the reform will penalise low-income people in manual jobs who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates who are less affected by the changes.

Pro-business Macron, 45, has championed pension reform since first winning power in 2017

If the reform is voted, one question will be whether the unions and demonstrators continue their protests and strikes, or whether the movement fizzles out.

The political implications of voting through a reform opposed by most of the population are also uncertain for Macron and the country at large.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and hard-left populist Jean-Luc Melenchon are hoping to capitalise on Macron’s unpopularity, having lost out to the former investment banker in last year’s presidential election.

Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT union, warned this week that forcing the legislation through without a vote would amount to “giving the keys of the Elysee” to Le Pen for the next presidential election in 2027.