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French court to have final say on pensions reform

France's top constitutional court is to rule Friday on whether to approve President Emmanuel Macron's deeply unpopular pensions overhaul after months of protests.

A pedestrian walks past a French gendarme (L) standing guard as a security perimeter is established around France’s Conseil Constitutionnel (constitutional council) on the day of a ruling from France’s Constitutional Council on a contested pension reform pushed by the French government, in Paris on April 14, 2023. – France’s top constitutional court is to rule on April 14 on whether to approve the French President’s deeply unpopular pensions overhaul after months of protests. (Photo by Ian LANGSDON / AFP)

France’s top constitutional court is to rule Friday on whether to approve President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular pensions overhaul after months of protests.

A green light from the heavily guarded institution would pave the way for the head of state to sign the changes into law and ensure they are implemented by year-end.

Experts believe the most likely scenario is that the nine-member body will censure some non-essential parts of the legislation but approve the core element of raising the retirement age to 64 from 62.

“The council will likely follow the course it always had — not to counter big social or societal reforms,” constitutional expert Laureline Fontaine told AFP.

But labour unions and opposition lawmakers are still hoping the Constitutional Council will strike down changes that Macron attempted during his first term in office and has put at the heart of the second-term agenda.

“It would be a disaster for Emmanuel Macron,” political journalist Ludovic Vigogne, who has written a recent book on the president, told RTL radio on Friday.

“He would have no margin for manoeuvre… it would be such a huge victory for his political opponents.”

France has been rocked by almost weekly protests since January and around two in three people are against the reform, which will bring France closer into line with its EU neighbours.

Partial approval?

Senior ruling party MP Eric Woerth said that he expected “the core part” of the law to be approved but he conceded that “we have not convinced people.”

“Once the volcano has cooled down and people look at things with a bit more distance, maybe in the back of their minds they’ll say, ‘maybe they were right’… the French pension system needed unpopular decisions to conserve it,” he told Europe 1 radio.

Some demonstrations have turned violent since Macron’s government forced the bill through parliament last month without a vote, using an executive power that is legal but has sparked accusations of undemocratic behaviour from opponents.

Some 380,000 people took to the streets nationwide on Thursday in the latest day of union-led action against the bill since January, according to the interior ministry.

But that was far fewer that the nearly 1.3 million it said demonstrated at the height of the protests in March.

Some protesters blocked roads around the northern city of Rouen on Friday and other spontaneous demonstrations are expected when the decision is made public at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).

Dozens of riot police were deployed around the court in Paris on Thursday during demonstrations and authorities have banned protests there until early Saturday.

As well as ruling on whether the pensions legislation and the way it was passed is in line with the constitution, the council must also decide on whether to approve an opposition demand for a referendum on an alternative pensions law.

‘End to procedures’

It is not yet clear whether it will give its go-ahead, but the path towards any actual referendum would be long and uncertain.

“We have very good arguments to ask for a complete censure (of the law),” left-wing MP Mathilde Panot told LCI television on Friday.

Having repeatedly dismissed calls for talks with union leaders in recent weeks, Macron has said he will invite labour representatives for discussions once the court decision is published.

“The decision from the Constitutional Council on Friday will bring an end to the democratic and constitutional procedures,” Macron told reporters on a trip to the Netherlands on Wednesday.

He added, however, that public debate “will continue, for sure”.

CFDT union leader Laurent Berger has said that if the bill is only partially approved, it should be re-examined in parliament.

Surveys show that about two in three French people are against the pension changes, with critics arguing they are unfair for women and unskilled workers who started working early in life.

But the government argues that they are essential to stop the system from falling into heavy deficits in coming decades and bring France in line with the rest of Europe where people typically retire later.