France’s Senate, the upper chamber of parliament, has voted to approve a controversial reform to the country’s pension system, a cornerstone of Emmanuel Macron’s second term as president.
Senators passed the reforms late on Saturday by 195 votes to 112, bringing the package another step towards becoming law.
The vote came hours after hundreds of thousands of people again marched in protest in rallies across the country, but in significantly fewer numbers than expected.
“An important stage has been passed,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne told the AFP news agency after the vote, adding that she believed the government had a parliamentary majority to get the reforms passed into law.
A committee will now hammer out a final draft, which will then be submitted to both houses of parliament for a final vote.
Should Macron’s government fail to assemble a majority ahead of the vote, Borne could deploy a rarely used and highly controversial constitutional tool, known as article 49/3, to push the legislation through without a vote.
Opponents of Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 have staged a new round of protests across the country to push the government to withdraw the unpopular plan.
Saturday’s nationwide marches, the second round of protests in four days and the seventh since January, were bolstered by ongoing strikes in key sectors, from energy to transport and garbage workers.
Police clashed with protesters in several cities, notably Paris, charging, tackling and pepper-spraying intruders dressed in black who set fires to piles of trash and destroyed urban equipment.
Paris police said 30 people were detained.
The turnout during Saturday’s protests, however, fell well short of projections.
The interior ministry said some 368,000 people showed up nationwide for protests, which was less than half of the 800,000 to one million that police had predicted ahead of the demonstrations.
In Paris, 48,000 took part in rallies, compared to police forecasts of around 100,000.
Unions, who put the attendance figure at a million, had hoped that turnout would be higher on a Saturday when most people did not have to take time off work to attend. On February 11, also a Saturday, 963,000 people demonstrated, according to police.
At the last big strike and protest day on Tuesday, turnout was just under 1.3 million people, according to police, and more than three million according to unions.
Geraldine Carbonell, a 47-year-old public housing employee, said it was wrong to make everyone work until age 64.
“We are not all equal in as far as the jobs we are doing are concerned,” she said. “Sixty-four years whether you’re a worker or an executive, is not the same.”
Macron’s refusal to accept union leaders’ request for a meeting has fed the determination of protesters, the leader of the leftist CGT union said ahead of Saturday’s march in Paris.
“There’s more anger,” Philippe Martinez insisted, adding that refusing to meet the union leaders organising the protests was an insult, amounting to “giving the finger.”
Instead, Macron wrote a letter to unions. He said he chose to “make the French work a little longer” because other options would have involved “decreasing pensions, raising taxes or letting our children and grandchildren carry the financial burden.”
‘Fight is not lost’
On Friday, the government asked for a special procedure to speed up the process by scheduling a single vote on the entire bill, rather than separate votes on each article and hundreds of amendments.
The bill got approved and would continue next week on its way through the country’s complex legislative process.
The government has not ruled out invoking a special constitutional power to force the bill through parliament without a vote.
Laurent Berger, head of the moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labour, or CFDT, said that using the special power, even if legal, would be undemocratic. “The fight is not lost,” he said.
Martinez, the CGT leader, suggested a referendum on the retirement plan: “Since [Macron] is so sure of himself, he should consult the people. We’ll see the response.”
Polls consistently show a majority of people opposed to the retirement plan.