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It’s crunch time for pension reforms in France

The clash over French President Emmanuel Macron's pension reforms is coming to a head after another day of strikes and marches ahead of a crucial vote in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the trash is piling up in Paris.

(CN) — France on Wednesday saw its eighth day of nationwide strikes and protests against pension reforms that President Emmanuel Macron has made central to his second term in office.

This new wave of strikes and marches comes a day ahead of a possible vote in the National Assembly and Senate on a package of reforms. Central to the overhaul would be an increase of the retirement age from 62 to 64 and higher contributions for large swaths of French workers.

Days of strikes by trash collectors in much of Paris has left rubbish pile up on many streets of the capital, drawing embarrassing headlines across the world. Walkouts by transport and energy workers also have caused distruption to travel and fuel supplies. There were reports of clashes between police and protesters in Paris and other cities, including Nantes and Lyon.

Many French see the reforms as a dangerous attack on the country's precious system of social benefits, but Macron and his allies in parliament say raising the retirement age is fiscally necessary and would bring France in line with other European countries.

On Wednesday, a bicameral committee of 14 lawmakers from the Senate and National Assembly met to hash out a compromise bill on the pension reforms.

In the afternoon, the committee said a draft bill had been approved in a 10-4 vote. The bill was expected to head Thursday morning to the Senate for a vote before passing to the National Assembly for a vote in the afternoon. The National Assembly, the lower chamber, is both the more powerful body in France's parliament and a bigger hurdle for Macron's reforms after his party lost a majority last June.

"With this compromise, they are responding to a request of the French to build solutions for the country together," Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said in a tweet.

Trade union leaders, who have led the protests, said they would keep up pressure on the government even if the reforms are passed.

"Lawmakers must look at what is happening in their constituencies," Laurent Berger, the head of France's biggest union, CFDT, told reporters at a large Paris rally, according to France 24, a public broadcaster.

There is a chance the National Assembly could vote down the reforms and force Macron to consider resorting to article 49.3 of the constitution, a provision known as the “nuclear legislative weapon.”

Triggering article 49.3 allows him to bypass the parliament, but it could also trigger a no-confidence motion against the government and add to public anger.

The vote in the National Assembly is very tight due to possible defections from Macron's party and France's Republicans, a conservative party in opposition but one that has championed pension reforms in the past.

Wednesday saw fewer protesters take to the streets than on March 7 when more than 1 million people took part in demonstrations. All eight of France's major trade unions are supporting the protests and calling on parliament to vote down the reforms.

Polls show more than 60% of French opposed to the pension overhaul with workers in the most physically demanding jobs and women among those expected to be the biggest losers. But the government says the changes will bring in 17.7 billion euros ($18.7 billion) in revenue by 2030. The reforms would not affect certain state workers, such as police and firefighters. 

Along with raising the age of retirement to 64, the government hopes to raise the minimum number of years a person must work to qualify for a full pension to 43 years.

But there is vigorous debate in France over the necessity of raising pension age and how to pay for future budget shortfalls. Unions argue that employers should be made to pay higher taxes, but France already has among the highest tax rates in the EU.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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