French Strikes Show Discontent with Proposed Retirement Reform

Posted by on Feb 10, 2023 in Stuff You Should Know, World

French workers have a long tradition of taking democracy to the streets. Now citizens are voicing their concerns about President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. On January 19 and January 31, 2023, thousands of citizens participated in union-organized national strikes against Macron’s plan. As a result of the protests, both left-wing and far-right lawmakers promised to block the reform.  

Macron’s retirement reform aims to solve a problem in France that many Western nations are facing. Increasingly, there aren’t enough workers paying into the system to cover pension, or retirement, checks. This is because retirees are having longer life expectancies. Economists argue that this current pension model is unsustainable. However, many French citizens have raised concerns that Macron’s plan is another policy that favors the wealthy and businesses over working people. After his 2017 election, Macron cut taxes for companies, reduced unemployment benefits, and got rid of a long-standing wealth tax.  

More than 248 protests occurred across France during the January 31st strike. More than 1.3 million people participated. This led to transportation shutdowns and delays and teacher walkouts from public schools. For example, Air France cancelled 10 percent of short-range flights and Eurostar cancelled rail services between Paris and London. The Education Ministry reported that one quarter of teachers did not work that day. More than 11,000 police officers were deployed to handle the demonstrations.   

Why Raise the Retirement Age? 

France’s pension system operates on a pay-as-you-go structure in which workers pay taxes to fund retirees. This allows people to retire with a guaranteed, government-backed pension. Supporters of Macron’s plan believe this system needs to change now to prepare for the future. This is because life expectancy is rising and the ratio of workers to retirees is decreasing. Many worry that if workers do not stay employed longer, then pension obligations will weaken government budgets and future generations will pay the price. Economists warn that across the 38 wealthy nations that make up the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the ratio of people 65 and older to people aged 20 to 64 will more than double by 2050.  

To combat this, Macron calls for adding two working years. This will require 43 years of work and tax contribution before one can collect a full pension. Supporters argue that this reform will more closely align France’s retirement age with that of other European countries. For example, Spain’s minimum retirement age is 65. The United Kingdom’s is 66 and will increase to 68 in 2044. Germany is looking at raising the retirement age to 70.  

Retirement changes in France have faced significant resistance in the past as well. In 1995, a proposed retirement reform caused a railway workers’ strike that succeeded in stopping the plan. Then, in 2003 another retirement reform proposal set off massive protests among teachers, again blocking any changes. In 2010, despite public outrage, then President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed through a bill that raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. Now President Macron is hoping to raise it from 62 to 64.   

Who Is Opposed and Why? 

A January 2023 national survey of French voters found that two-thirds of respondents oppose the retirement reform. These respondents included voting adults of all ages and socioeconomic groups. Many opponents of the reform argue that the requirement to work longer unfairly burdens blue-collar workers. These workers typically start working at a younger age and have physically demanding jobs. Likewise, many have suggested that alternative reform strategies should be considered. These strategies include requiring companies to pay higher taxes or reestablishing a wealth tax. The French government could also remove the requirement that pension checks automatically increase for cost-of-living adjustments. 

France has many laws in place to help its residents achieve a healthy  a work-life balance. They  are reluctant to give up these benefits. Since 1982, when Socialist President François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60, the French have been accustomed to long retirements. This lengthy third stage of life for personal fulfillment has made retirement feel like a basic right. The French believe their retirement and other benefits are a special model worth protecting. For example, the government mandated a 35-hour work week in 2000, and in 2016 passed a “right to disconnect” law forbidding bosses from emailing employees off the clock. The French also have a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation a year. According to the OECD, even with these benefits, French employees have one of the highest rates of productivity compared to similar countries. This commitment to a work-life balance has only been strengthened with the millennial and Gen Z generations. Many see a rise in the retirement age as the first step in eroding other benefits the country provides.  

What’s Next? 

The unions that organized the January demonstrations have plans to hold more national strikes in February. On February 7, more than 750,000 French citizens protested again. These protests have already softened the government’s position as Macron initially called for a retirement age of 65. France’s Prime Minister has acknowledged opponents’ questions and doubts. On February 6, the beginning of debate on the bill in the National Assembly saw shouting and table-banging from lawmakers. It remains to be seen whether the proposed reform will change any further, be blocked completely, or be pushed through by executive action. The bill could go to a vote before the end of April.  

Dig Deeper Pick another European country facing pension deficits. Use the Internet to research what this country has done or plans to do to address the issue and how citizens have reacted. Write a paragraph comparing your chosen country’s strategy to what is happening in France.