PARIS French lawmakers began closed-door deliberation on President Nicolas Sarkozy's disputed pensions reform on Tuesday with the government saying it would accept only minor amendments.
Parliament's social affairs committee started the debate with a presentation by Labour Minister Eric Woerth of the plan to raise the retirement age to 62 from 60 in 2018, make people work longer for a full pension and raise civil servants' contributions to private sector levels by 2020.
The unpopular reform, against which trade unions plan mass demonstrations in September, is intended to reduce France's record public debt and deficits by balancing the accounts of the pay-as-you-go pension system by 2018.
"This is the most brutal reform in Europe," said opposition Socialist floor leader Jean-Marc Ayrault, even though many EU countries already have retirement at 65 and some such as Germany and Britain plan to raise that age gradually to 67.
Woerth, at the center of a scandal over alleged conflicts of interest involving France's richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, said in a radio interview the government was prepared to amend details of the bill but not its basic principles.
Woerth insisted he would not resign and said he expected to be questioned by police soon in the affair.
The New Center party, which is junior partner in government and supports raising the retirement age, questioned whether the reform would balance pension accounts in 2018 as promised.
Raising the pensionable age "doesn't solve everything," New Center spokesman Jean-Luc Preel told reporters.
The governing center-right UMP party and the opposition Socialists both said they had agreed not to use text messages or Twitter to leak the proceedings in real time, as happened twice this year during closed-door appearances by Prime Minister Francois Fillon and French soccer coach Raymond Domenech.
The Socialists appealed to Sarkozy to ensure that an independent magistrate was appointed to investigate the Bettencourt affair, which also involves allegations of illegal cash donations to conservative politicians.
"The debate on pensions is more polluted than ever by the daily revelations in what has become known as the Woerth-Bettencourt affair," the Socialist parliamentary group said in a statement.
"Only the guarantee of an investigation conducted by an independent judge can enable a calm debate with the necessary credibility about a bill which everyone considers one of the most important in this legislature," the Socialists said.
Some 400 amendments been submitted to the social affairs committee and 200 to the finance committee. But the Socialists said about 30 of their amendments had been disqualified under a new constitutional provision barring lawmakers from introducing spending measures in non-budget legislation.
Woerth said the government would spend July and August listening to lawmakers and talking to trade unions before putting a possibly amended text to plenary debate on September 7.
(writing by Paul Taylor, editing by Alison Williams)