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French court to rule on pension age rise as nationwide protests rage on


Riot police guard the Constitutional Council building during a demonstration against pension reform in central Paris, France, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. French unions are held strikes and protests on Thursday against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform, seeking to maintain pressure on the government before a ruling on the law’s constitutionality.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

France’s Constitutional Council will rule on the legality of President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension system reforms on Friday, as nationwide protests against raising the retirement age rumble on.

A decision is expected at 6 p.m. French time.

Long traffic jams have formed in cities including Marseille. Protesters made their way into the headquarters of luxury goods giant LVMH and lit smoke flares on Thursday — the same day the company’s share price reached a fresh record high, following the release of its first-quarter results.

Macron and French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire argue that the reforms are fiscally necessary to secure the costly pension system into the future. The measures will drive up the retirement age for most workers from 62 to 64, as well as increase the number of years in work required to receive a full pension.

Opponents argue that the changes mark a political decision that disproportionally impacts lower-paid workers and women, while companies report bumper profits.

In an interview with French TV stations last month, Macron insisted that the moves were necessary, but acknowledged that people felt a “sense of injustice” and said that he would look to make businesses contribute more.

A procession of students shouting opposition slogans with a sign reading ”Macron guillotine? Yes maybe” during a demonstration where for the twelfth time in 3 months, several thousand people, employees and students, demonstrated in the streets of Paris.

Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

The French leader has faced a huge uphill political battle to get the pension changes, which he has advocated for years, to this stage. His popularity has plummeted, and widespread strikes and protests that have involved clashes with police have been staged since the start of the year.

The government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne used a special constitutional measure to pass the changes without a parliamentary majority because of the large number of opposing politicians. The process involved triggering Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to amend the social security budget. The government then narrowly survived a no-confidence vote.

While some hope the Constitutional Council will fully reject the bill, many commentators say that is unlikely.

The appeal against it is based on three points concerning the information that was provided to lawmakers, the suitability of the procedure and whether the bill fills the budgetary scope, Le Monde reports.

The council could reject portions of the legislation, particularly later additions that were introduced to try to garner support from opposition parties, Renaud Foucart, senior lecturer in economics at Lancaster University, told CNBC.

Demonstrators march along the vieux port during the 12th day of nationwide strike on pension reform on April 13, 2023 in Marseille, France.

Marion Pehee | Getty Images News | Getty Images

An outright rejection is unlikely because the move has precedent, but the council could remove more minor provisions, such as a requirement for large companies to publish annual reports on how many workers they employ who are aged 55 and over.

“That is probably the best outcome for Macron,” Foucart said. “He can then sit down with unions and say we can negotiate some sort of new additions or reforms with a more social focus.”

Unions have said they will accept the council’s decision but demonstrations are likely to continue. “Tonight, Paris will burn,” Foucart said. “But the decision today is likely to provide a chance for Macron to try to change the subject.”

Foucart added that, while the nine-member council is France’s top constitutional authority, it is not akin to a supreme court and mainly comprises former politicians elected to serve nine-year terms, rather than lawyers — meaning a surprise is possible.

Some in the opposition hope the ruling will result in calling a referendum — an unprecedented move that would require 20% of parliament members to vote in favour, then five million people to register their support online, providing their details. Parliament would then be required to debate the law for six months, after which a vote would be carried out in the absence of an agreement — potentially leading to a situation where the retirement age rise become illegal.

However Foucart stressed that this outcome was “unlikely to be meaningful in practice.”

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