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French MPs launch debate of controversial pensions overhaul

The battle over the French government’s pension reform moved Monday from the streets to parliament, where opposition lawmakers have vowed to torpedo a plan that sparked weeks of strikes and protests.

Unions are up in arms over President Emmanuel Macron’s bid to fuse France’s 42 retirement schemes into a single system, which they say will force millions to work longer.

Public transport workers walked off the job for a month and a half in December and January in one of their biggest shows of strength in decades, causing travel misery for millions, particularly in the Paris area.

But a fresh strike and protests Monday caused only minor disruptions on the Paris metro, while regional trains ran as normal.

Opposition lawmakers are taking up the fight with a legislative guerrilla campaign, introducing 41,000 amendments in a bid to keep the government from passing the reform in two to three weeks as planned.

“We’re going to make life hard for them, that’s for sure,” Jean-Luc Melenchon of the hard-left France Unbowed party told BFM television.

“Macron will never recover from this attempt to destroy pensions,” he said.

The government argues that the changes are necessary to make the system fairer for all, while also ending the deep deficits that have accumulated in recent years as more people live longer.

On Tuesday (today), it will open talks with unions on how to finance the system, but officials have warned that if no deal is reached, the retirement age will effectively be pushed pack by a few years from 62 currently.

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The start of the debate comes as Macron’s centrist party reels from a sex scandal that toppled its candidate for mayor of Paris in next month’s municipal elections, Benjamin Griveaux.

Griveaux, a close Macron ally and former government spokesman, pulled out of the running over a leaked video showing a man presented as the 42-year-old politician masturbating.

To replace him, the government chose Health Minister Agnes Buzyn, one of the most prominent defenders of the pension reform, which will now be steered through parliament by her successor Olivier Veran.

“We have to fix the problems of our system,” Veran told lawmakers, adding: “I’m 39 years old, and already I have contributed to four different pension regimes.”

Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party wants to get the bill through parliament before the municipal elections, which analysts say could be a crucial test for the party.

While it has a comfortable majority in parliament, some LREM lawmakers have suggested the legislation may have to be forced through by executive decree if the opposition tries to hold it up indefinitely.

But that could see the government accused of curtailing democratic debate on one of the most contentious issues of Macron’s presidency.

The reforms sweep away dozens of separate pension schemes, some dating back hundreds of years, that offer early retirement and other benefits to public-sector workers as well as lawyers, physiotherapists and even Paris Opera employees.

Tens of thousands of people, including large numbers of teachers and doctors, took part in seven separate days of nationwide protests in December and January.

The government argues that the French, who retired earlier on average than most Europeans, need to work for longer to keep the system afloat, or else accept lower payouts.

Opponents say the plan will force people to invest in private US-style pension plans and have accused Macron, a former investment banker, of rolling out a red carpet to foreign asset managers like US investment giant BlackRock.

Last week, dozens of activists stormed BlackRock’s Paris offices and spray-painted the walls and carpets with anti-capitalist and environmental slogans – the second such incident at the site since the pensions battle began.

BlackRock has denied trying to influence the reforms.