Why French unions don't want to wait until 62 to retire

French unions rallied again in protest of President Sarkozy's proposal to increase the minimum retirement age to 62.

Jacques Brinon/AP
Passengers arrive at Saint Lazare train station Sept. 23, in Paris, France. Protesters are counting on people power to pressure the government to back down on its plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

French workers took to the streets today for the second time this month in a massive and colorful protest against the government’s plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62.

In Paris, tens of thousands of demonstrators of all ages wound their way through the city center singing protest hymns and waving banners that bore slogans such as “Prisoners of work” and “Time to retire Sarkozy, racist,” in a reference to the controversy over Roma expulsions. There were similar marches in towns and cities across France, and in major centers the strikes created havoc for travelers. About 50 percent of national and regional trains and flights at French airports were canceled.

Organizers considered the protest crucial in their fight against the pension reform, but it was unclear who won this round. Unions said the turnout was even higher than demonstrations earlier in the month, when between 1 million and 3 million people protested, but police estimates put it much lower and a statement from the Elysée presidential palace said that showed the French are ready to put the debate behind them.

But many workers say they’re prepared to stay the course, in spite of perceptions that they are simply too lazy to accept what would still be the lowest retirement age in Europe.

Two years too many, workers say

Jean-Pierre Lesouef, an electronics manager at the transportation giant Thalys, says he has already worked for 37 years and is too tired to work into his 60s.

“I’ve had enough,” he says. “When you’re at my age and you’ve worked as long as I have, you see if you want to work another two years.”

Some experts say complaints like Mr. Lesouef’s go a long way toward explaining why the proposal to add an extra two years to French working life has caused so much upset.

Why French workers might not be the happiest

Annual studies for the European Commission looking at attitudes toward work show the French, along with the Italians and the Spanish, are among the unhappiest workers on the continent.

Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the Paris-based Centre for Economic Research, blames a hierarchical work structure within French companies that rarely allows room for professional development or promotions. Performance reviews are rare and negotiations on working conditions or career paths practically are scarce.

“The French model dictates that if you have a certain diploma you will have a certain career, and if you don’t you will never climb the ladder,” he says. “The worker at the bottom feels like he is constantly squeezed and never consulted. By the end of his career he is exhausted and uninterested, so it’s no wonder he wants to leave.”

Worker satisfaction has also dropped since the 37-hour workweek was introduced, because most people are forced to do the same tasks but in less time, Mr. Sterdyniak says.

What about pension benefits?

Workers like Daniel Quittot, an air conditioning technician, say they’re concerned they will be forced out of their jobs and unable to find new work well before they turn 62. “I’m afraid that if the retirement age goes up, I’ll have two extra years on unemployment and in the end I won’t have worked long enough to collect my full pension,” he says.

Sterdyniak says Mr. Quittot has legitimate fears. Surveys show that unemployment among French workers over 55 rose dramatically when the retirement age was reduced to 60 from 65 in 1983 and is now among the highest in Europe. Although many want to work up to age 60, French employees are on average forced out of their jobs at 58.

“There is a real problem of age discrimination right now in France,” says Sterdyniak. “Unless that changes with the pension reform, we are going to create a whole new problem of unemployment.”

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