A failure by the French left to mobilize sufficiently large street protests Thursday suggests a French government plan to increase retirement from age 60 to 62 may well succeed.
Like the generous French vacations, plentiful holidays, and a 35-hour work week, the lowest retirement age in Europe has been seen as nearly a sacred right by French workers since 1983, when Socialist President François Mitterrand reduced it from 65 to 60 with the flourish of a pen.
Yet President Nicolas Sarkozy's proposal to boost the retirement age comes as French are acutely aware of economic woes across Europe. High debt loads are prompting government austerity plans in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Britain. Most recently, on May 25 Italy announced plans for a €25 billion ($30 billion) cut over two years. France has announced a government spending “freeze,” which amounts to an austerity plan.
The French are also aware that Germany, the main engine of the European economy, has raised retirement from age 65 to 67, effective next year.
France, like many European nations, has generous welfare state expenditures that are now bumping up against a gradual rise in life expectancy – requiring greater amounts of revenue and predicted deficits for the foreseeable future.
French polling data this week suggested some 700,000 people would strike and protest against the retirement age hike. But the actual number was far lower, below 400,000, according to police estimates – and did not cripple aviation and train transport. Union leaders estimated the total turnout at nearly a million, and 90,000 in Paris. Police said the Paris figure was closer to 22,000.
French Labor Minister Éric Woerth this week said that the plan to raise the age workers can claim pensions from 60 to 62 is a “logical option.”
Retirees earn more than workers
In a new study, the Paris left-leaning research firm Terra Nova says that for the first time, retired persons in France are pulling a greater monthly income than working people – giving further ammunition to younger generations, sometimes termed “precarious” here since they are not finding the jobs, nor achieving the “purchasing power” of their parents.
“What the government is proposing is pretty reasonable, given the demographic changes,” says Karim Emile Bitar of KB Consulting Group in Paris. “Sarkozy may have the upper hand, since the left did not gather enough support.”
Socialists appear divided on the question of retirement. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a leading Socialist contender for president in two years, made waves in recent days by calling for an end to a “dogmatic approach” to retirement. Socialist party leader Martine Aubry, however, says that if elected president she will restore retirement to age 60.
Mr. Sarkozy this week felt strong enough politically to take a shot at Mr. Mitterrand, a French icon, saying in a meeting of ruling party UMP members that, “we’d have far fewer problems if [Mitterand] hadn’t changed things [to age 60.]”
A retired cab driver in Paris, Marc, takes the view that retirement should be tied to the number of years one works, not age. An office temp in downtown Paris says she understands the need for a change if her children are going to be able to get pensions and be able to afford housing when they retire.
"It's the individual case," says Philip Gourval, a lawyer from outside Paris. "If you start work at 15 and you work in a factory all day, then you should be able to [retire] early. If you're a bureaucrat – maybe not."