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France’s Macron wants pension reform bill ready by Christmas

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron will press ahead with reforming the country’s unwieldy pension system and his government will draft legislation by Christmas, Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt said on Thursday.

Talks with political parties and trade unions will start as early as next week. The intention is to hold a vote in early 2023 and for the reform to take effect in July, Dussopt told LCI television.

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“Emmanuel Macron set a framework for a progressive rise in the retirement age to balance the pension system (budget),” he said.

Dussopt’s remarks confirmed details given to Reuters by a source present at a dinner on Wednesday evening where Macron briefed senior governing coalition lawmakers and ministers.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told Agence France Presse the reform could entail pushing back the retirement age by three years to 65 by 2031.

Reforming France’s costly and complicated pension system was a key plank on Macron’s election platform when he first came to power in 2017. But his initial proposals infuriated the unions and provoked weeks of protests and transport strikes just before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Macron put the initiative on hold as he ordered France into lockdown in early 2020.

Against a backdrop of surging inflation across Europe and the continent’s worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, opposition to the reform remains strong among Macron’s political adversaries and the trade unions.

His own political party, which no longer has a governing majority in parliament, is also divided on the issue.

A multi-sector strike by several trade unions on Thursday will be a test of the unions’ ability to mobilize support and a barometer of potential social unrest.

Macron has spoken repeatedly of wanting to make the French work longer and raising the retirement age from the current 62.

CGT union leader Philippe Martinez told France 2 television that another round of talks was pointless.

“If this is to propose raising the retirement age, we will not stay (at the table) very long,” Martinez said.

If the reforms were blocked in parliament, the government could in theory use the “49.3” clause – namely a French constitutional mechanism to allow a government to pass legislation even if lacks a majority in parliament.

Such a move could trigger a vote of no confidence, however.

Asked if it was correct that Macron had told those at the dinner that he could seek a snap election if his reform was blocked, Dussopt replied: “The president considers that…if at one moment, the majority of opposition parties were in alliance to bring about the fall of the government, then he would go to the French people.”

The last time the 49.3 clase was used was in 2016 when then-president Francois Hollande’s Socialist government rammed through contested labor law reforms that had been drawn up by Macron, who was economy minister at the time. (Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Dominique Vidalon, editing by Richard Lough, Shri Navaratnam and Mark Heinrich)