French government defiant on pensions ahead of crucial votes
France's government on Sunday held its ground over a bitterly contested pension reform rammed through parliament without a vote, a day before it faces crucial no-confidence motions.
"There will be no majority to bring the government down, but it will be a moment of truth," Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said of the two efforts to unseat the cabinet planned for Monday afternoon.
Monday's two no-confidence motions have been filed by a small group of centrist MPs and the far-right National Rally.
Although President Emmanuel Macron's camp has no absolute majority in the lower house National Assembly, it is the largest group and all of the opposition would need to unite for one of the votes to pass.
Most MPs from the conservative Republicans party are not expected to back a no-confidence motion.
Republicans chief Eric Ciotti wrote on Twitter Sunday that his constituency office had been pelted with rocks overnight.
"The killers who did this want to put pressure on my vote on Monday," Ciotti wrote on Twitter, posting pictures showing smashed windows and threatening graffiti.
He has previously said that he would not "add chaos to chaos" by kicking the government out.
Another Republicans lawmaker, Frederique Meunier, told broadcaster BFM that she had received hundreds of sometimes-threatening emails over the pension reform.
"It's harassment," she said. "We feel like they're going to cut our heads off tomorrow".
- 'What do we have left?' -
The government's Thursday decision to resort to Article 49.3 of the constitution -- which allows ramming a bill through parliament without a vote -- has prompted anger in the streets after weeks of mostly peaceful protests and strikes against the plans.
Police on Saturday closed Paris' Place de la Concorde opposite parliament for demonstrations following two successive nights of clashes.
Some 122 people were arrested as some set rubbish bins on fire, destroyed bus stops and erected improvised barricades around a 4,000-strong demonstration in the capital.
They made up the majority of Saturday's 169 arrests nationwide.
Other demonstrations in cities around France had passed peacefully, with hundreds turning out in the Mediterranean port city Marseille.
"What do we have left apart from continuing to demonstrate?" said Romain Morizot, a 33-year-old telecoms engineer, at the Marseille protest, predicting "social tensions" over the reform.
"There's deep discontent, there's a huge majority against this law, and we have a president who keeps moving forward and changing his arguments as he goes," hard-left CGT union leader Philippe Martinez told BFM Sunday.
"For as long as the 64 years are on the table, we have to keep going" with demonstrations, former hard-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon told broadcaster RTL.
People close to Macron told AFP that the president was "of course following developments" on the ground.
- Refinery shutdown -
Away from the streets of major cities, the CGT said Saturday that workers would shut down France's largest oil refinery in Normandy, warning that two more could follow on Monday.
So far, strikers had only prevented fuel deliveries from leaving refineries but not completely halted operations.
Industrial action has also halted rubbish collection in much of Paris, with around 10,000 tonnes of waste now on the streets as the government forces some binmen back to work.
A ninth day of wider strikes and protests is planned for Thursday.
Macron's reform raises the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 as well as increasing the number of years people must pay into the system to receive a full pension.
The government says the changes are needed to avoid crippling deficits in the coming decades linked to France's ageing population.
"Those among us who can will gradually need to work more to finance our social model, which is one of the most generous in the world," Le Maire said.
But opponents say the law places an unfair burden on low earners, women and people doing physically wearing jobs, and polls have consistently showed majorities opposed to the changes.
A survey of 2,000 people published in the JDD Sunday gave Macron an approval rating of 28 percent, its lowest since 2019's mass "yellow vests" demonstrations against a new fuel tax.