The head of the hardline CGT union Philippe Martinez said on Monday that France was living under an “authoritarian” regime, as he excoriated President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to overhaul the country’s complex but cherished retirement system. “We are dealing with an authoritarian government,” M Martinez told LCI television, adding that M Macron’s controversial pension bill was “riddled with holes” and “unclear”.
Streamlining the retirement system is a priority for M Macron, but the proposal has been met with rejection in recent months from far-left unions, sparking street protests and France’s longest transport strike in decades.
Further protests have been called for Thursday, but in a clear sign of the weakening power of the unions, a call for a Paris metro strike on Monday was largely ignored.
M Martinez’s scathing comments came as lawmakers started debating the bill.
The final vote, after the legislative process through the National Assembly and the Senate, is not expected before the summer.
But opposition politicians determined to derail the government’s pension plans have proposed a record 41,000 amendments to the bill.
“This plan has not been thought out properly. It does not safeguard the future of our retirement system … and on top of that this reform is unfair,” Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, told France Inter radio.
Fellow socialist Boris Vallaud, denied claims opposition lawmakers were trying to gangrene the parliamentary process by putting forward an avalanche of amendments.
“We’re not causing obstruction. We’re simply exercising our parliamentary power,” he told broadcaster France Info.
But while M Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party has a comfortable majority in parliament, some lawmakers have suggested the bill may have to be forced through by executive decree if the opposition maintains its blockade.
Triggering Article 49-3, a rarely invoked clause in the constitution that allows for reform by decree, would likely see the Macron government accused of curtailing democratic debate and abuse of power.
M Macron wants to merge the country’s 42 separate pension schemes, each with different levels of contributions and benefits, into a single, points-based system under which all workers would have equal rights.
He also plans to scrap a number of special pension regimes under which some people, like railway workers, are allowed to take early retirement.
Others, like lawyers and doctors, pay less tax.
Faced with the crippling strike action, he reluctantly softened the impact for some professions and temporarily dropped a measure that would extend the retirement age by two years to 64.
M Macron, a former investment banker, says that the myriad special benefits handed out to different types of workers in the existing pension system deter mobility within the job market.
He also insists the new system will be fairer and help plug a stubborn deficit.
Unions, however, argue that the changes will force millions of people to work longer or face curtailed benefits.
The 42-year-old centrist has shown no sign of bending to the demand of hardline unions that he abandon the reform altogether.
Winning the face-off would give him the green light to implement further pro-business reforms as he gears up for re-election in 2022.
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