The World Today for February 17, 2023

NEED TO KNOW

Les Misérables

FRANCE

It’s an age-old battle in France: French leaders want more work out of their constituents. Workers, meanwhile, say “non.”

“We’re worn out by work,” pensioner Bernard Chevalier said in an interview with Reuters. “Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death.”

Numerous French leaders have tried to fiddle with the retirement age – politicians of all stripes agree something has to change. But such attempts usually produce a flood of strikes, protests, and outrage, as it did on Thursday.

The problem is, French President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to make the country more competitive internationally. He has proposed raising the retirement age by two years to 64, and hiking the number of years workers must remain on the job to receive a pension.

Now, as French citizens protest in the streets, unions hold strikes and lawmakers balk, the country’s economy and political system have been immobilized. Public transportation, schools, refineries and other businesses were shuttered twice over the past month. Other groups, like farmers protesting bans on pesticides, have entered the fray with their expressions of discontent, the Associated Press added.

“We live in a productivity-obsessed society that is preoccupied with economic growth and which has been destroying our planet for decades,” Rose, a 16-year-old high school student who recently took to the streets to condemn the proposal, told France 24. “Now we’re being asked to work for two more years so we can produce even more. This system is wrecking our planet – it’s normal to rebel against it.”

Macron and defenders of the policy say the country’s social welfare net is buckling under a system where too few young workers are generating funds to pay for payments to retirees, Al Jazeera reported. As Radio France Internationale wrote, Macron’s plan is to plug the French pension system’s structural deficit by 2030 with almost $20 billion in savings.

France has one of the earliest retirement ages in the Western world – most other European nations have pegged retirement at 65, and many like Germany have upped that age over the past decade. Meanwhile, France has one of the most generous pension systems, too.

Still, many Europeans retire earlier than their country’s official retirement age. For example, although the official retirement age is 67, German men retire at an average age of 63.1 years and women at 63.2, according to the OECD. In France, the average age at which men and women retire is 60.

Still, as the Economist noted, “Like the 35-hour working week, the lowering of the retirement age in France has become part of national mythology: the celebration of progress towards a better society in which the burden of work is eased.”

Macron’s plan is decidedly violating that national mythology, analysts say.

Still, French officials had hoped that momentum against the measure would have petered out after a few days of civil unrest. Instead, as the Local explained in an analysis, the government has lost public support. Polls suggest that two-thirds of the country dislike the measure.

Nationwide demonstrations have drawn more than a million people.

The Local warned that Macron’s governing coalition in parliament could get “cold feet” as the debates over the plan continue to rage. Already, for example, women’s advocates are carving out concessions for women who postponed career advancement to start families. And Macron is already making concessions.

Exacerbating the challenge is that Macron’s political party, Renaissance, failed to win a majority in legislative elections this past summer, the Financial Times reported. In coalition with two other parties he can count on 250 members of parliament – the largest bloc – but needs 289 votes to pass the laws, which Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne must still muster.

Macron and his friends will have to work much harder if they want their constituents to do the same.

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