The French Senate approved President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension reform plan as hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in cities across the country to oppose the changes.
Senators voted late Saturday to adopt the reforms by 195 votes to 112, bringing the package — whose key measure is to raise the retirement age by two years to 64 — closer to becoming law.
“After hundreds of hours of discussions, the Senate has adopted the pension reform plan. It is a key step to carry out a reform that guarantees the future of our pension system,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne wrote on Twitter .
She added that she was “totally committed to ensuring that the text will definitely be adopted in the coming days.”
Now that the Senate has adopted the bill, it will be reviewed by a joint committee of lawmakers from the lower and upper houses, probably on Wednesday.
If the committee agrees on a text, a final vote in both chambers is likely to take place on Thursday. But the outcome of this still seems uncertain in the lower house, the National Assembly, where Macron’s party needs the votes of allies for a majority.
If the government fears it does not have enough votes in the lower house, it is still possible to push the text through without a parliamentary vote via a rarely used and highly controversial constitutional tool known as article 49:3.
‘now or never’
Unions, which have fiercely opposed the measures, still hoped on Saturday to force Macron to back down, although the day’s protests against the reform were much smaller than some previous ones.
According to interior ministry figures, 368,000 protesters marched through various cities on Saturday. Authorities expected up to a million people to take part after a record 1.28 million people gathered in the streets earlier in the week.
Tensions rose on Saturday night, with Paris police saying they had made 32 arrests after some protesters threw objects at security forces, including burning garbage cans and breaking windows.
In a joint statement, French unions, in a rare show of unity since the protest movement was launched at the end of January, called on the government to organize a “consultation of citizens” as soon as possible.
Unions said they plan to keep up the pressure with an additional day of nationwide strikes and protests planned for Wednesday.
“This is the final deal,” CFDT union deputy Marylise Leon told broadcaster Franceinfo. “A lot of things can still happen next week,” he said. “The text will be voted in the National Assembly? We must rally. It is now or never.”
Opinion polls show that a majority of voters oppose Macron’s plan, while a larger majority support strike action. Most people, however, said that they believe that the president will end up getting the reform adopted.
The government insists the reform plan is essential to ensure the French pension system does not run out of money, but many see the changes, such as raising the retirement age, as unfair to the people who started working young.
“I am here to fight for my colleagues and for our young people,” said Claude Jeanvoine, 63, a retired train driver demonstrating in Strasbourg, eastern France.
“People shouldn’t let the government get away with this, it’s about the future of their children and grandchildren,” he told the AFP news agency.
The reforms will also increase the number of years people have to make contributions to receive a healthy pension. Protesters say women, especially mothers, are also at a disadvantage under the new reforms.
“If I had known it was coming, I wouldn’t have stopped working to look after my children when they were small,” said Sophie Merle, a 50-year-old childcare provider in the southern city of Marseille.
The protests and rolling strikes affected many sectors of the French economy, including rail and air transport, power plants, natural gas terminals and waste collection.
A spokesman for TotalEnergies said strikes would continue at the oil producer’s French refineries and depots, while public rail operator SNCF said national and regional services would be heavily disrupted over the weekend.
In Paris, trash continues to pile up on the streets, with residents seeing an increasing presence of rats, according to local media.
National energy production in France was reduced by 7.1 gigawatts, or 14 percent, at nuclear, thermal and hydroelectric plants on Saturday due to the strikes, a spokesman for the CGT union told news agency Reuters press.
Maintenance has also been blocked at six French nuclear reactors, including Penly 1, the spokesman said.
Despite the protests and strikes, Macron this week twice rejected urgent appeals from unions to meet with him in a last-ditch attempt to change his mind.
The snub made unions “very angry,” said Philippe Martinez, head of the left-wing CGT union.
“When there are millions of people in the streets, when there are strikes and all we have on the other side is silence, people ask themselves: what more do we need to be heard?” he said, calling for a referendum on pension reform.