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French Senate votes to raise retirement age despite nationwide protests against pension reform

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A protester holds a placard reading "Retirement at 64-years-old, the working dead" during a demonstration in Lille, northern France. (Photo by AFP)

France's Senate has voted in favor of raising the legal retirement age in the country, a first win for President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform plans, ignoring months of widespread protests and strikes across the country.

Two hundred and one members of the Senate, dominated by the conservative Les Republicains Party, on Thursday voted for the reform's flagship article 7, which raises the retirement age in the country from 62 to 64, while 115 voted against it.

Liberal politicians voiced anger following the vote, and the debate will resume later on Thursday over a controversial amendment to the bill. The Senate majority is rushing to meet a deadline of midnight Sunday to finalize the legislation.

"Your name will forever be attached to a reform that will set the clock back almost 40 years," Socialist Monique Lubin told Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt.

The French upper house is expected to approve the remaining articles of the reform bill later this week. It will then be submitted to a mediation committee between lawmakers from the Senate and the lower house of parliament next week.

The government is hoping the pension changes will be adopted by parliament by the end of the month as Macron lacks an outright majority in the lower house, the National Assembly, and will need to win over several dozen conservative lawmakers or use his constitutional powers to bypass parliament.

Labor unions have vowed to pile pressure on the government by staging protests and strikes. On Tuesday, more than 1.2 million protesters marched across France as rail workers and refinery staff began rolling strikes and trade unions stepped up their campaign to try to stop Macron's pension reform.

The call for strikes and demonstrations had been issued by all major unions. They have vowed to bring the country to a standstill. Protests on Tuesday, which marked the sixth day of strikes and protests since mid-January, ended in a violent clash with police in Paris.

Local urban buses and subway trains in large cities were affected, as were airlines, with up to 30% of flights cancelled on Tuesday and Wednesday as air traffic controllers went on strike. Key sea ports were also blockaded, as dock workers were among those to join rolling strikes.

"The government has to take this [resistance] into account when there are so many people in the street, when the government is having so much trouble explaining and passing their reform," Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union, said at a Paris demonstration.

Macron has put the change at the center of his political agenda, arguing that raising the retirement age is the only way to prevent deficits from piling up and preserve the system, which relies on active workers to fund retiree payments, as the population ages.

He has ruled out other approaches such as raising taxes, lowering pensions, or increasing the public debt.

However, many in France, where there is already anger over rising living costs, are against the plan. An Ifop poll for the Sunday paper Le Journal du Dimanche found that only 32% of French people supported Macron's pension changes.

An Elabe poll found 56% of French people supported rolling strikes, and 59% backed the call to bring the country to a standstill.

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