French lawmakers pass pension reform amid uproar

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France's lower house voted Wednesday to back President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 62, in the teeth of angry street protests and a fierce battle in parliament.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly voted by 329 to 233 to approve the pension reform bill, defeating an attempted opposition filibuster and defying trade union threats to stage more strikes and days of protest.

Earlier, several thousand left-wing demonstrators had assembled on the Place de la Concorde, across the Seine from the National Assembly, chanting threats of a nationwide general strike against the draft law.

Last week, trade unions staged a one-day national strike and managed to attract between one and three million demonstrators onto the streets of more than 100 towns and cities around the country to oppose the law.

But the president's supporters insist the reform's key measure -- raising retirement by two years by 2018 -- will save the state pension fund 70 billion euros and help rein in France's soaring public deficit.

Sarkozy vowed the bill would be pushed through, and it remains central to both his reform programme and his personal political survival strategy, less than two years before he goes before the electorate to seek re-election.

The bill will be examined by France's upper house, the Senate, on September 23 -- when the unions have called another one-day stoppage -- and it is now expected to pass into law shortly afterwards.

Senators who met Sarkozy over lunch as their lower house colleagues were debating said that the president had promised them that they would have a "margin" to modify the law in order to appease some opponents.

But the government has made it clear that the retirement age will rise.

Opinion polls show that a majority of voters join opposition Socialists and unions in opposing the reform -- even if most judge it inevitable in a France with an ever older population and mounting pensions shortfall.

Without enough votes to block the bill in the Assembly, the Socialists had attempted a delaying tactic, with each of their members planning to speak for five minutes each, forcing the debate to last through the night.

After a sleepless night in the chamber, parliament speaker Bernard Accoyer called time on the stunt, shutting down the debate at 10:00 am, amid uproar.

"I will not allow the use of petty manoeuvres to obstruct our parliament in a paralysing and deprecating way," said Accoyer, a member of Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party, as Socialist deputies cried: "Resign!"

"Everything is coming from the Elysee. It's Mr Sarkozy who is behind all this. Bernard Accoyer has behaved like a faction leader," complained Socialist parliamentary leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, amid calls for Accoyer to go.

For their part, UMP deputies backed the speaker and accused Socialist party chief Martine Aubry and her supporters of substituting spoiling tactics for debate and failing to present an alternative to the reform.

Trade unions say the bill puts too much of the burden of curtailing the deficit on the backs of workers, and would rather fund the pensions black hole with levies on banks, bankers' bonuses and the super-rich.

Socialist leaders have said that if one of their number wins the 2012 presidential battle against Sarkozy, they will repeal the measure.

Even at 62, France's minimum retirement age would still be well under the average of around 64 in the OECD group of wealthy democracies, despite France having one of the world's longest life expectancies.

Meanwhile, France's public deficit, at around eight percent of GDP, is well above the eurozone target of three percent.

Sarkozy has been weakened by a summer of political scandal and his personal approval rating -- still below 40 percent according to several polls -- remains close to its all-time low.

© 2010 AFP

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