Opinion: Macron takes the retirement age in France out of the seventeenth century

Editor’s note: David A. Andelman, a CNN contributor, two-time winner of the Deadline Club Award, president of the French Legion of Honor, author of A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He was previously a European and Asian correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinion at CNN.


The last time President Emmanuel Macron tried to drag France’s antiquated pension and pension system from the 17th century into the 21st century with one long drag, mobs roamed the streets of Paris, flaming barricades rose on the Champs-Elysées and Macron’s entire presidency nearly faltered. Against the “yellow vests” (yellow vests).

Now, four years later, he has tried again with some tweaks to appease, and it doesn’t look like Macron will escape a much different fate. On Tuesday, the French government announced plans to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64 to qualify for a full pension.

The backlash from the trade unions was swift. The first nationwide protest strike has already been set for January 19.

But Macron is a determined man. France’s budget risks bogging down on pensions that drain nearly 14% of the country’s gross domestic product each year — nearly twice that of the United States and behind only Italy and Greece in Europe.

In announcing the plan, Macron’s government indicated that without some reform, the state budget risks accumulating an annual deficit of nearly $20 billion by 2030. “Otherwise, we will finance our pension system on credit,” Macron said.

The French have long and fiercely defended their workers’ rights in the face of government reform. In the 1980s, when I lived on Rue Solferino, across the street from the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party, farmers dumped truckloads of carrots in protest of agrarian reforms. Recently, they marched hordes of sheep and pigs through the streets of Paris in protest of the high costs of farming.

The question facing the deception of French public opinion is whether Macron’s determination and appeal to rational economics will suffice. And what model might Macron II’s failure set for the rest of the world? If France cannot reform, how can other countries, burdened with rapidly aging populations and fragile economies, manage?

Currently, all men and women in France can retire with a full pension at 62 – tied with Sweden and Norway for the lowest retirement age in Western Europe. Macron only wants to raise that age by two years (still lower than the US and UK, where the retirement age ranges from 66 to 67, depending on year of birth).

But there are special exceptions dating back to the time of Louis XIV. After performing on stage for 10 years, actors of the Comédie Française – the classic French theater founded by the great playwright Molière – have the right to claim a life pension. This dates back to the establishment of the company in 1680.

Dancers at the Paris Opera can retire with a full pension at age 42, a custom that dates back to 1689, when Louis XIV was eager to found an opera and ballet company that Europe would envy. Those working at both companies can still retire at 57. Then there are the train conductors, who can opt out at 52.

Although life expectancy has changed dramatically over the centuries, pension systems have not. In France, life expectancy in the mid-18th century was only 25 years, rising to between 60 and 70 by the end of World War II. These days, life expectancy in France is just over 79 for men and 85 for women. But the retirement age has completely failed to keep up.

Overall, there are at least 42 different pension systems, most of which were enshrined in law during the chaotic period at the end of World War II. There is still a cacophony of eight trade union federations – more than Germany, Italy and Britain combined. Now, Macron is proposing to cancel all private deals for everyone from subway tellers to Banque de France tellers.

They will all be under a single national retirement umbrella. And 64 is the age with a standardized minimum pension of just over 1,300 euros ($1,400) a month. However, some of the old rules are too ingrained to be addressed. The new regime will not apply to the Paris Opera, the Comédie-Francaise, fishermen, lawyers or the “liberal professions” (doctors, dentists and architects, among others).

But for everyone else, unions take up arms. France’s leading trade unions wield political and social power far beyond anything wielded by their American counterparts. At the same time, Macron has as little persuasion, on an institutional level, as President Joe Biden had when he called on Congress last month to act to avert a catastrophic rail strike that threatened to cripple American transportation and commerce.

With the height of the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly behind him, and a presidential win for a second term under his belt (though his parliamentary majority has faded to unbridled pluralism), Macron clearly felt it was time to implement his long-dreamed of reforms.

He will have a fight on his hands. The yellow vest protests across France four years ago were fueled by soaring fuel prices, but quickly devolved into complaints against a much broader agenda. In particular, inflation fueled by gas prices has been hitting retirees hard. The third rail of French politics has always been pensions and retirement. Too often, the French simply live until they stop working.

“We have to be able to face reality and find solutions to preserve our social model,” observed French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne as she announced what the administration was crafting as a compromise measure. During his campaign for re-election last year, Macron declared the retirement age to be 65. He hopes that reducing that number by a year might at least make him more palatable. fat chance.

“Nothing justifies such a brutal reform,” Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate CFDT union, told reporters after unveiling the reform plan. That’s one way to look at it. But in reality, the retirement age will only gradually be shifted gently — rising by only three months a year and won’t reach 64 until 2030.

It is unlikely that any of this will silence union leaders who have any number of important allies across France’s broad political spectrum – all of whom see retirement as a way to oust Macron’s second and final five-year rule.

“The French can count on our determination to block this unfair reform,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, which defeated Macron in the presidential elections last April. At the other end of the spectrum, Mathilde Banno of the far-right party France Insoumise (France Unbowed) tweeted that the plan was “outdated, unfair, brutal and cruel”.

Now, however, the battle continues. This is a model for America and its unions in the first appearance of Congress, which set a new budget for Congress. Not to mention that the European Union is on the brink of collapse.

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