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French MPs begin debating controversial pension bill as opposition vow to derail it

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)
Protesters hold banners as they take part in a demonstration on February 17, 2020, in Paris as part of a multi-sector strike against the French government's pensions overhaul. (Photo by AFRP)

Members of the French parliament have begun debating a controversial pension reform bill that has sparked weeks of strikes and protests in the country, with the opposition vowing to derail it.  

On Monday, opposition MPs sought to prolong the blockages in parliament by submitting 41,000 amendments to the fiercely contested bill.

This comes as President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) party is seeking to get the bill through parliament before next month's municipal elections.

Macron's plan to overhaul the pension system has sparked nationwide protests and a crippling strike in the transport sector since early December.

The weeks of protests and strikes have affected public transportation, disrupted schools, hospitals, courthouses and even opera houses and the Eiffel Tower.

Despite a series of concessions to groups, including police, pilots and many transport workers, the government has largely held firm on a reform promised by Macron during his 2017 presidential campaign.

The president is already faced with a major challenge to his rule from the “Yellow Vest” protesters, who have been holding weekly demonstrations for more than a year.

Macron's pension reform plan would sweep away 42 separate retirement schemes, some dating back hundreds of years, in favor of a single system.

Unions say the new system will introduce a “points system” for retirement, which will have a significant impact on both the public and private sectors and will force them to work well beyond the official retirement age of 62.

Critics also say the plan will force people to invest in private US-style pension plans, accusing Macron, a former investment banker, of rolling out a red carpet for foreign asset managers like BlackRock -- claims the government has denied.

However, Macron, whose government has been under constant pressure by Yellow Vest protest rallies, insists that the reform plan will make for a fairer system and help erase pension system deficits forecast to reach as much as 17 billion euros (19 billion dollars) by 2025.

Macron says the new system will be more transparent and fairer, in particular to women and low-income workers such as farmers.

But even France's moderate CFDT union, the country's largest and a backer of Macron's reform, has warned that the standoff might worsen unless the government definitely drops its plans to defer the age for a full pension from 62 to 64.

Macron's government has already ruled out any possibility of abandoning the plan.

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