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French govt wins key victory for controversial pensions overhaul

The French government won its first parliamentary fight Wednesday over an overhaul of the country’s byzantine pensions system, clearing a key hurdle despite fierce protests and weeks of chaos wrought by the largest transport strike in decades.

President Emmanuel Macron’s most ambitious reform to date passed in the National Assembly shortly after midnight, after his centrist majority survived two no-confidence votes.

The bids to topple the government came after it employed a rare constitutional measure to cut short a debate that had become bogged down in a morass of opposition amendments, effectively forcing the bill through.

Trade unions and opposition parties slammed the move as anti-democratic, but their calls for fresh protests against a bill that triggered the crippling French transport strike this winter went largely unheeded.

The bill now moves to the Senate, where it again faces a barrage of amendments intended to slow its passage, before heading back for final approval by the National Assembly before the summer.

Critics say the introduction of a single, points-based system will force millions of people to work beyond the official retirement age of 62, or face lower pensions.

The government argues that abolishing the country’s 42 separate pension regimes, which offer early retirement and other benefits mainly to public-sector workers, will be fairer and end years of deficits.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe hailed the text as a victory for “social justice”, saying that “those who defend the status quo… too often are just talking nonsense.”

But the opposition vowed to keep up the fight, urging voters to sanction Macron’s Republic on the Move party in the nationwide municipal elections that begin March 15.

“Punishment will come at the polls,” the far-left France Unbowed lawmaker Eric Coquerel said on Twitter. “This ignoble law will not pass.”

– Questions remain –

If passed, the reform will be phased in over the coming years for people born since 1975 but will not affect the pensions of those already nearing retirement age.

Macron’s overhaul is the most extensive in a series of pension reforms enacted by successive governments on both the left and right, aiming to end chronic budget shortfalls as people live longer.

A government commission estimated last year that the deficit could reach as much as 17 billion euros ($19 billion) by 2025 if no changes are made.

Yet many details of the reform, including how much a point will be worth when people retire, have yet to be determined.

Many people remain sceptical of the new system, with 56 percent of voters in an Ifop poll published on February 13 saying they opposed a points-based method.

The government has promised to negotiate with unions on how to finance the new system, but it has already warned that if no deal is reached people will have to work beyond 62, one of the lowest retirement ages in the EU.

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