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French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, second from left, met with unions as well as employer organizations on potential amendments to the reform package, almost two weeks after the strikes began.THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

The French government launched negotiations with labour unions Wednesday on potential changes to a landmark pension reform bill that sparked crippling transportation strikes and protests across the country.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met with union leaders and employer group representatives after French President Emmanuel Macron asked his government to hold talks on possible amendments to the reform package.

The general strike that started Dec. 5 dramatically impacted train and subway service as drivers remained off the job. Teachers, doctors and other workers joined the walkouts, and hundreds of thousands of people participated in nationwide protests.

An agreement with hard-left unions appeared to be a way off. The leader of the CGT union, Philippe Martinez, acknowledged a “deep disagreement” with the prime minister after their meeting.

“We have two clashing perspectives,” Martinez said. “We don’t have the same values.”

The government is seeking to reach a deal with more moderate unions, which Macron hopes may weaken the protest movement.

A close aide to Macron, who spoke anonymously in accordance with customary practices, said the president “won’t abandon the project” but is “willing to improve it.” Macron himself was not planning to get involved in the negotiations or to make an announcement in coming days.

Among the reforms is raising by two years the age at which individuals would be eligible to retire with a full pension, arguably the main target of worker opposition. The proposal to increase the state-sanctioned retirement age from 62 to 64 is currently scheduled for 2027.

Officially, the government has said very little about the areas on which it would be willing to compromise. The furthest government spokeswoman Sibeth NDiaye went was to call the higher retirement age a “proposal.”

Macron’s planned reforms are aimed at unifying France’s 42 different pension regimes into one, which would abolish special provisions allowing certain workers to retire as early as their 50s. The changes also are intended to keep the pension system financially viable, according to the government.

“We must find a compromise,” Macron’s aide said.

With Christmas approaching, Macron and his government are seeking to pile the pressure on unions for a “pause” in the strikes during the holiday period so families can get around the country.

Some unions, though, want the strikes to continue over the holidays.

The government plans to formally present the pension bill in January. The text will then need to be approved by parliament, where Macron’s party has a majority.

On Wednesday, Macron appointed a junior minister for pensions, Laurent Pietraszewski, a 53-year-old lawmaker with expertise on the issue.

The nomination comes two days after the minister who had developed the new pension system, Jean-Paul Delevoye, resigned over potential conflicts of interest in a major blow to the government.

The government had long hoped that France’s largest union, the centre-left, reformist CFDT, would back the pension reforms.

CFDT Secretary-General Laurent Berger has said he was in favour of a “universal and fair” new system but that delaying the introduction of the new age of retirement was a ”red line.“ His union joined the protest movement last week after the government detailed the planned measures.

Berger said following Wednesday’s talks that he sensed the French government wanted to “discuss and open up” but he thinks “we are very, very far” from an agreement to end the impasse at this stage.

The head of the moderate UNSA union, Laurent Escure, noted Wednesday that the government moved its position somewhat, especially on measures to help those working in harsh conditions.

Another round of negotiations was scheduled for Thursday.

Recent polls show a majority of the French support the strikes and protests, as they fear the proposals will make them work longer in return for lower pensions.

Jean-Daniel Levy, a political analyst with the Harris Interactive market research firm, said a big majority of the French hope the strikes will be suspended during the holidays but want the protests to resume.

“There’s a general feeling that protesting at Christmas time would be perceived as radical attitude, with which the French cannot agree.” he said.

Sorting out the complex French pension system has been a challenge to all recent governments. Most notably in 1995, after three weeks of massive strikes, the government of President Jacques Chirac was forced to abandon its reform proposals.

But not all have met with failure. More recently, presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande got changes through in the face of protests. Under Sarkozy in 2010, the retirement age was raised from 60 to 62. Four years later, Hollande passed a law that effectively meant the French needed to work for 43 years to get their full pension.

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