French retirement reform: why France is on strike

France is on strike. Continents of trash have proliferated, enticing rats into elaborate empire building schemes. The gas stations alternate between deserted wasteland infrastructure and magnetic hubs for hordes of drivers desperate to fill empty tanks. Air and rail travel are intermittent at best. My son’s daycare closed again this week, a decision made at the last minute by the city, due to a shortage of available workers. As I, like most French workers, try to navigate this landscape and ensure a certain level of service and productivity, it occurs to me that my notions of what’s behind the protests are vague at best. Retirement reform, sure. But, at least from an American perspective, it’s a bit hard to grasp why there’s so much hullabaloo over pushing back the retirement age to 64 (from 62). We’re currently at 66 in the United States–67 for those born between 1955 and 1960.

Indeed, much of the American coverage of the movement in France expresses a certain degree of bewilderment and cultural bias confirmation: the French do not value work in the same way as Americans do, and retirement is seen as a “Nirvana of a time when you no longer have to work“; the French are lazy and “the word ‘work’ has a negative connotation” for them; the French are argumentative by nature and prone to striking, so even though “most people voted for Macron, who said he wanted to reform the system […], most people oppose the reforms“. To be sure, there are significant cultural differences between France and the United States when it comes to conceptions of work and the good life. And those differences are, to an extent, relevant to understanding what is going on with the current reform. However, they also obscure more nuanced and salient analyses.

While trying to gain a better understanding of what’s behind the massive contestation in France, I stumbled across a new-to-me podcast by French comedian Marine Baousson called Vulgaire. On a recent episode she does an excellent–and fun–job breaking down what’s at stake in this reform, starting with the change in the retirement age, but highlighting other points that I think reflect a general sense of malaise in France with respect to the economy, fear about a dismantling of the social system, and anger over deceptive, bad-faith communication tactics from the current administration.

Here are some of her main take homes:

  1. The government has posited the idea that, given people’s longer lifespans, the current economics of the retirement system are not sustainable. However, many economists dispute that.
  2. A pension reform was already enacted in 2014 (under Francois Hollande) in response to the issue of longer lifespans. It only recently started coming into force in 2020.
  3. A major incentive for the 2023 reform was actually to balance the books after generous corporate tax breaks. This sounds like a generic conspiracy critique, but it actually appears in “black and white” (to cite Baousson) in the 2023 Budget and the 2022-2027 Stability Program submitted to the European Commission.
  4. The reform disproportionately affects lower income workers whose life expectancies are significantly shorter than higher wage earners. On this point, a beautifully-written opinion piece by French journalist Rokhaya Diallo in the Washington Post puts it well: “mortality numbers vary among social classes. […] Blue-collar workers live six years less than executives, so that one-quarter of the poorest men die by age 62, while 94 percent of the rich are still alive at 64. Only 40 percent of the poorest survive to 80, whereas 75 percent of the wealthiest do. So it’s easy to see who needs retirement income the most.”
  5. The administration plans to eliminate special regimes for some sectors (rail, energy, etc.), with the stated aim of streamlining the system and making it fairer. This has inflamed many unions.
  6. The government claims this reform will better account for professions that are particularly physically taxing. This is simply double speak for an about-face from an administration that is merely reinstating some of the categories it had previously removed from a list of physically taxing professions in 2017.
  7. The government promised the reform would translate to a minimum pension of EUR 1,200/month. It has since walked back this commitment, to much criticism.

In France, the concern over the retirement age is not so much about the usurpation of one’s halcyon years, but about the assault on a social system that strives to protect the vulnerable and ensure a certain level of economic equality. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but here goes: the fear is that Macron’s administration, in its mission to “modernize” France’s economy, is leading the country toward a bleaker, more inegalitarian future, all in the service of capitalism. And, to make matters worse, for many, this shift is being undertaken on false and intentionally misleading pretenses.

To cite Diallo, “Such a mass of people taking days off to defend our social model, which once was praised throughout the world, shows we are ready to stand up for French values.” So, next time the daycare shuts down for strikes and protests, perhaps I’ll take the little one out into the streets. He is half French, after all.

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