I don’t know all of the finer points. I’ve been following it for my own personal interest, and it’s ridiculously complex. The problem is, the current pension and retirement program was brought in after the Second World War, part of the broadening of the welfare state and the social security net, but the current problem is that the pension is in deficit. There’s a shortfall that needs to be made up somehow. The Sarkozy government has decided the way it’s going to do this is by forcing people to stay in work longer. [Currently,] retirement is determined not by age but by how long you’ve been contributing, which is measured by trimesters and not by years, so roughly 40 years. At age 60, assuming you’ve fulfilled all your requisite trimesters, you can retire. If you’re 60 and you don’t have all of them, you can work until you’re 65. These are the bare bones. This is for the majority of the people, but there are people who work for organizations such as the SNCF (France’s state-run railway company), the Metro and others benefit from special régimes (pension plans).
What’s happened is that gradually between now and 2018, people will be retiring at the minimum age of 62 instead of 60, and if you don’t have enough trimesters, it’ll be 67 instead of 65. So they’re pushing back the legal age at which you can retire over a very gradual period of time.
That doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Why are the French so upset about it?
It’s a question in part of culture and of different perceptions of not necessarily just work, but why you work. In North America, we work all the time. People have very little in the way of standard vacations. We might get two weeks out of a year. The ethos in France is that, yes you work, but you have to have time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. A lot of people have five weeks of vacation out of the year. The idea of retiring early is that you have time to enjoy your retirement. It’s a whole different conception of why you work and how you work. That’s why North Americans have such a difficult time understanding it because there is this push to work until you can’t work anymore.
The other thing to keep in mind is the French economy — the GDP is pretty good. It’s one of the top economies in the world. Given that, why should people work more when productivity is high? The French are very tied to what they think they have a right to, as most people are. Every country has its issues that are incredibly divisive. For the French, the legislated amount of work, whether it’s the workweek, the pension, the vacation days a year — they hold to that pretty firmly. There are a couple million people out there protesting, but studies are showing that at least 40 percent of the French population agrees that extending the working life of the average person is a solution, so it’s not everybody that is up in arms about it.
You also have a unique situation where the government is negotiating directly with the unions. My sense is there’s something of Sarko in all of this. When he was campaigning and when he came into office, one of [his] things was that the French needed to be more productive. He was promoting a vision of the French as lazy and ineffective. He’s really been on a push to increase the workweek, taking similar measures to force the French to be more productive, so I see some of him in all of this because there are alternatives to extending your working life. A lot of the people on the left have been suggesting tax reforms and taxing certain kinds of transactions of capital as a means of generating more income to cover the gaps, but what it comes down to is a very different approach to life and work in France and here. The French have the lowest age of retirement in Europe. That’s partly brought down by those people who have the special régimes that allow them to retire at 50 or 55. The average age is a little bit below 60.
My parents were just in France and at dinner with their French friends they were talking about the strikes. In North America, there’s an increasing lifting of mandatory retirement ages because people want to work longer, and this idea, to their friends at least, was completely foreign. Why would you want to work longer than you have to? Although they (the French) are commonly portrayed as just being lazy, I don’t think it’s about being lazy. It comes down to a different perception of the purpose of your work. However, one of the go-to phrases for some of the younger protesters is, “J’ai doit a la paraisse.” (“Laziness is my right.”) It’s no secret that the French like to take to the streets when things aren’t going well.
How does this tie in with the French tradition of protests and strikes and the conflicts over labor reforms over the past century?
It’s interesting to see this clash with someone like Sarkozy, who is trying to bring about a change in people’s dominant culture, the ethos of the country. Whether he’ll be successful I don’t know because his popularity rates are dropping, dropping, dropping.
When I was in France, there were student protests to implement an apprentice system to get students into jobs. It was just a one-year contract, but the idea was to help more people get work. The students were arguing though that people would just hire them for a year and then fire them because they had no incentive to keep them. I was in Paris for the summer and there were massive demonstrations. The Metro I would take was barred, so I would take the bus, which would go halfway and stop and say it was the end of the line. I had to walk home one day and I got to the Champs Élysées and there were CRS (French riot police) vans lining both sides of the avenue but there was no traffic. My first thought was, “When am I going to get the chance to walk straight down the Champs Élysées?” As soon as I got home, I looked at the news and there was teargas and the CRS was having conflicts with the students, and I missed it all by 20 minutes. It’s something that people always make fun of the French, but part of me admires that ability of the French to really fight for something that they want.
What do you think will happen in the end?
I don’t think the government is going to negotiate any further, especially when it seems like a fairly reasonable proposal. People who were planning on retiring this year will retire anyway. People who are going to retire next year will have to work an extra four months. The gradual implementation will do something to take the sting out, but it’s difficult to predict. My sense is that it will ultimately go through.
So what did the protests achieve then, if anything?
Initially, my impression is that the law was a blanket law that was going to affect the majority of people, so they’re making exceptions now. So those who have the [special plans], such as people who started working at 17 or 18 will still be allowed to retire at 60 because otherwise they would end up working 10 years or more than people who started working, say, after grad school at 27. They’ve been chiseling away at who is actually going to be affected and who is being granted an exception so in some sense, yes, the protest has had an impact, not to mention the effect on Sarkozy’s popularity ratings. Some support him all the more now because he’s taking a hard line against all those “lazy strikers,” but he’s not necessarily coming out of this looking too good himself.