Updated: Mar 15
You might have seen images of protests across France that have drawn millions of people to the streets. Our students have been noticing and are asking Hortense and I some questions. Why are the French constantly on strike? France’s retirement age is among the lowest in the world so what are the French complaining about? Clearly President Macron’s plan to push the retirement age back from 62 to 64 has struck a nerve with the French people, but why? What is the plan about?
What's the plan?
President Macron first proposed changing the pension system back when he was elected in 2017. In 2019, when the government presented a points-based system that would allow a person to retire once they had gained a certain number of points, thousands of protesters took the streets across France in what was one of the longest demonstrations in France’s history. The government was forced to drop the measures amid the coronavirus crisis. During his second term President Macron reintroduced his plan to overhaul the pension system. Changes to the program were not well received and many workers in industries such as railways, schools, and refineries walked out in protest, calling the decision a “historic regression.”
Why push the retirement age?
As populations age and birth rates decline across the world, many countries have been forced to raise their retirement ages to meet the growing number of those seeking pension. For example Spain’s minimum retirement age is 65, and the U.K’s is 67, with an increase to 68 planned in 2044. Germany’s retirement age is currently 67, but the country is considering raising their retirement age to 70 as they face a decrease in pension funds.
In France, all French workers receive a state pension and those who are currently working pay into the fund for those already in retirement. Because life expectancy in France is increasing there are more people in retirement and fewer workers contributing, the French government asserts that people will need to work longer to keep the pension system financially sustainable.
The new plan is therefore meant to increase funds by making the French work longer. According to Labour Ministry estimates the planned reforms would yield an additional 17.7 billion euros ($19.1 billion) in annual pension contributions, allowing the system to break even by 2027.
Why are the French fighting back?
A recent public opinion poll found that over 60% of French people oppose the plan, which has united France’s left and far-right groups. This type of consensus is rare in France and it demonstrates the seriousness of the problem for the French government.
France’s attachment to retirement is complex, touching on its history, identity and pride in social and labor rights that have been hard won. When it was introduced by the National Resistance Council after World War II the retirement system, along with national health care, was part of a series of celebrated social measures intended to help bring a fractured country together. So now, in the midst of a recession, record levels of inflation, the covid pandemic, and the Ukraine war impacting energy prices, the French are really feeling pressure. This reform feels like the final blow from a government that is tone deaf to the struggles of its population.
Also amongst the protestors are women, who argue that the reform’s Achilles heel is the inequality it entails for them. In France, women's pensions are 40 percent lower than those of men, while their pay was already 22% lower on average in 2022. In comparison, in Estonia, the average difference between men’s and women’s pensions is 3.3%, the lowest in Europe, followed by Slovakia at 7.6% and Denmark at 10.6%.
So how does this happen? Retiring at 64 doesn’t automatically guarantee a full-rate pension. Only after 43 years of full-time work can individuals claim their pension. In most French households the woman is responsible for caring for their children and it is thus commonplace for women to work part-time. The years of childcare care and part-time work are not included in the 43 years of work. Yet society is almost designed to force women to stay home on certain days. For example, on Wednesdays most primary schools don’t have classes, and daycare centers are closed. As such, it falls on the woman to stay home with the child.
To compensate for the toll the reform would take on women’s pensions, the government promised to increase the minimum pensions up to €1,200 before tax. Unfortunately not all women will be eligible for this increase for the reasons mentioned previously. Although the government claims that the reform would “foster justice and equality” some of Macron’s own ministers admitted in January that it would “leave women a little penalized”… The sense that the government has misled women is therefore shared by many protesters, fueling their resentment of the proposal.
The unions have called for other ways to increase funds, like taxing the ultra-rich. Some are in favor of an increase in payroll contributions paid by employers instead. The record profits of some of France's biggest companies in 2021, particularly in the energy sector, have also contributed to a sense of injustice and led to calls for an increase in corporate taxation.
However President Macron plans to proceed with the changes despite protests. The change is expected to be debated in Parliament, where President Macron no longer has an absolute majority. But the government may use a special power to force the law through Parliament without a vote.
la retraite = retirement
un(e) retraité(e) = a retiree
l'âge de départ à la retraite = retirement age
la retraite anticipée = early retirement
une maison de retraite = retirement home
les indemnités de retraite = retirement benefits
les allocations de retraite = retirement allowance
une pension de retraite = retirement pension
un PER (plan d'épargne retraite) = retirement account
Note, in France we talk about “le premier âge” for infancy, and “le troisième âge” is for the retired but physically active people. We now talk about “le quatrième âge” for people who are old and ill. But we never talk about “le deuxième âge”.
Pour aller plus loin
If you would like to go a little further with the topic of French retirements, here are a few resources. The first video explains, in French, how the retirement system works. The next two links are podcasts, one in English about the reform, and a second one in French with the testimonials of French people on strike.
Podcast: Pension reform fury, employment after 55, Paris Peace Accords
France Inter : Réforme des retraites : paroles de cette France qui dit non
En parlant de retraite: the Burgundy retreat
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