Fight Over Retirement in France Is a Question of Identity

Monday is line dancing; Tuesday scrapbooking with friends; Wednesday caring for her two grandchildren.

Martine Mirville’s itinerary is an advertisement for retirement in France.

After decades of working, much of it as a secretary, she packed up her desk for the last time, bought an apartment in this seaside town in Normandy where her daughter lives, and started the coveted next stage of her life.

“I wake up every morning and say how lucky am I to be here,” said Ms. Mirville, 67, during a break from her Thursday morning gym class. Then, she used a favored French expression that has been echoing across the country in protests this year: “This is the time to enjoy life.”

Since President Emmanuel Macron’s government introduced plans to push the retirement age back from 62 to 64, France has been convulsed by regular strikes and protests that have drawn millions into the streets, not only in the capital, but in towns and villages across the country.

Protest against Since President Emmanuel Macron’s pension in Paris in January.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

On Tuesday, workers walked out of schools, refineries, power plants, airports and transportation systems in the biggest mobilization yet, trying to all but turn out the lights in the country in protest.

The government’s plan has struck a deep and sensitive nerve in a society that cherishes retirement and reveres a generous balance between work and leisure perhaps more than any other Western industrial country.

France’s attachment to retirement is complex, touching on its history, identity and pride in social and labor rights that have been hard won. They will not be easily forfeited, no matter how many times the government argues that changing the pension system is imperative to save it, given the demographic realities confronting the country.

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 bind the fractured country together.

Ms. Mirville, left, with friends in Granville, overlooking the English Channel. Retirees make up 45 percent of the town’s population.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

It was designed so active workers pay the pensions of their elder generation, creating interdependence, “so we don’t necessarily want to fight one another,” explained Bruno Chrétien, president of the Institute for Social Protection. “It built a kind of social peace.” 

The problem today is that the baby boomers have retired and are living much longer than when the system was devised, while the system’s motor — the younger work force that pays for their pensions — is not keeping up.

Mr. Macron and his government say that the pension system is in “an increasingly precarious state” and that his proposed change is “indispensable” to put it on firmer financial footing.

The French, polls show, are overwhelmingly opposed to retiring later.

“We are capable of being as productive as Americans. But don’t forget, life is not just about working,” said Hervé Bossetti, 58, a money manager at his fifth protest snaking through Paris last month, dressed in a striped prisoner’s uniform, carrying a ball and chain, and wearing a sign that said, “Prisoner of work.”

He added, “In France, we believe that there is a time for work and then a time for personal development.”

In Granville, a town perched on a cliff overlooking the English Channel in the north of France that was proclaimed the best place to retire by Le Figaro in 2022, the allure of retirement is on full display.

Restaurants, cafes, museums and theaters are full of seniors — who make up 45 percent of the town’s population. The Inter-Age University offers dozens of courses, from Russian to contemporary history. The town supports more than 100 clubs and charitable organizations.

Catherine Iacovelli-Hamon and her husband Yvan moved to Granville after working six days a week for 20 years at their tobacco and newspaper shop in Caen.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“It’s the first time in my life I’ve been onstage,” said Catherine Iacovelli-Hamon, 62, who moved to town about three years ago, after selling the tobacco and newspaper shop in Caen that had soaked up six days a week of her life for 20 years. Her pension covers about three-quarters of her last salary — enough to travel, go restaurants and theater. “All the things we could not do, finally, we are doing them.”

After World War II, only one-third of people lived to see retirement. Those who did, got access to just 20 percent of their former salary for a handful of years before dying.

Since then, France’s pension payments and life expectancy have both ballooned. Today, the average French pensioner is richer than the general population, accessing roughly 75 percent of their previous earnings with fewer expenses.

While 23 percent of American retirees live below the poverty line, in France just 4.4 percent do — one of the lowest rates in the 38-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Ms. Mirville and friends in Granville, where restaurants, cafes, museums and theaters are full of seniors.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

Instead of just three years, the average French person will spend more than a quarter of their life — from 22 years for men, to 26 for women — in retirement, and much of that in good shape, which French statisticians measure as “life expectancy without disability.” Those who made it to 65 in 2021 could expect another 11 to 12 good years, on average, according to French government statistics.

No longer a short reprieve before death, retirement is now seen as “the afternoon of life, a time that is blessed,” said Serge Guérin, a professor of sociology specializing in old age at Iseec Business College in Paris.

“It’s a time of liberty, to finally enjoy your grandchildren, your interests, your desire to travel, to volunteer and be elected in your community.”

It is also seen as compensation for working life.

“There is this vision in France,” Mr. Guérin added, “that working time is time waiting to be able to enjoy life.”

Many retirees in Granville were hard at work in a metal hangar, putting the finishing touches on their handmade floats for the town’s annual carnival. Jean-Paul Doron was painting a chest to be filled with confetti. Now 70, Mr. Doron began work at 18 as a metal worker, and later became a warehouse stocker at France Télécom — the former national telephone company that became synonymous with horrific work culture in France, after dozens of employees committed suicide and managers were sent to jail for “institutional moral harassment.”

Jean-Pierre Doron, a former metal worker, at his Carnival workshop in Granville. “People shouldn’t wait for retirement to have liberty,” he said.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“People shouldn’t wait for retirement to have liberty,” said Mr. Doron. “The young need to fight for working conditions that are respectable to them.”

The French labor code outlines specific hazardous conditions, offering workers exposed to things like extreme temperatures or night shifts points that can go toward early retirement. However, only 15 percent of French workers were entitled to points under this system, according to a recent Ministry of Labor report.

That hardly captures the overbearing sense of pressure French workers, filling protests, describe using the same term — “pénibilité,” which roughly translates to “hardship.” Researchers says the culture of the French workplace remains largely hierarchical and increasingly stressful.

“People say, ‘My work weighs on me. I don’t necessarily have health problems, but I find it difficult to withstand.’ They talk about pressure, always working at a fast speed, never being allowed the time to finish a job in peace. But there aren’t any points for that,” said Annie Jolivet, an economist and researcher at the Center for Employment and Labor Studies.

Ironically, around three quarters of French workers have consistently expressed satisfaction with their work repeatedly in surveys over the past twenty years. They have also said, repeatedly, they’d like to retire as early as possible.

Some of the 500,000 protesters that unions said turned out on the streets of Paris on Tuesday.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“It’s a place of contradictions,” said Bertrand Martinot, a workplace economist and fellow at the right-leaning Montaigne Institute, whose recent report showed large majority of French were satisfied at work, but most found their work hard, and almost half said they thought the current retirement age of 62 was already too late. “This shows there is an essential schism in France, but the story is more complicated than just ‘work is a horror.’”

One explanation Mr. Martinot offers is distrust of government. Another is that by changing the age of retirement, the state is breaking an unspoken promise to workers.

“It’s a kind of contract that’s been signed with the state,” he said. “People will accept intense work, and a low salary, if they have a long retirement, with a good quality of life.”

Mr. Chrétien, the director Institute for Social Protection, offers another theory. That the French social protection system built after World War II came at a time when France’s international status as a superpower was eclipsed by the United States.

The social protection scheme, he said, “became an element of national pride.”

“We are not as powerful, but still, we have something others don’t — the best social protection system in the world that is extremely generous and extremely costly.”

The pension system is the biggest part of that social protection system.

“In some way,” Mr.  Chrétien said, “the French are experiencing the postponement of retirement as a very questioning of their identity.”

Granville, proclaimed the best place to retire by Le Figaro in 2022.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
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