Millions strike in France against pension reform

By Emma Brooks

On Tuesday and Wednesday this week the French went on strike in masses (approximately 2 million people), against plans for pension reform. Why are they all so upset about these reforms that they have taken to the streets in such huge numbers? One could argue they are not really that upset as striking is second nature to the French and they will go on strike for anything. But let’s push that thought aside and try to be objective. The pension reform plans aim to rise the age of retirement in France from 60 to 62 in 2018, and eventually to 65. Personally, I find their discontent unjustified, and this is why.

One can understand and agree with only two of their arguments: that the planned reforms will not stop the growth in the budget deficit whilst planned funds for the pensions of the baby-boomers have been badly spent; and that people over the age of 60 trying to seek employment will most likely end up unemployed and on the dole. For the rest one just wants to tell them to stop being lazy and get on with it!

Retirement is only a relatively recent notion that was introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before then, life expectancy being lower, people worked until death. Granted, this could not work nowadays when people have very long life expectancy but nonetheless we must remember that retirement has not always been part of our lives and cannot be taken for granted. Second of all, France actually has the lowest retirement age amongst fellow European countries, the most generous retirement packages and consequently a huge deficit in its pension fund. By comparison, in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece and the UK the retirement age is 65, in Germany it is 67 with several of these countries planning to raise this.

Yet none of these countries of late have seen such huge breakouts as there have been in France. Notwithstanding the fact that many people actually want to keep on working, just as many people want to work more than 35 hours. But instead, it is made difficult for them. Many people upon reaching the age of retirement worry about no longer being employed, not knowing what do with themselves after having stopped their jobs. In fact, some people want to carry on working after retirement and either take on new jobs or continue working on a freelance consultancy basis. All this, without counting the fact that the French benefit from the 35 hour working week, whilst many other countries are working 40-42 hour working weeks if not more. It seems strange that in what is supposed to be the working world, the French seem to be so concerned over their well being, spare time, and cushy retirement plans. Did they forget that the working world meant having to work? In comparison to their European neighbours who are working harder. So really, why are they complaining about having to retire 2 years later?

Instead, it is important to keep in sight the reasons why the state is suggesting these pension reforms. It is not to slight those who have worked hard, but rather to face the reality of an ageing-population. As Matthew Hunter mentions the figures speak for themselves. The baby-boomers and later generations are fast out-growing the current generation of young employees and graduates entering the job market. Not only that, but according to the ILO, the number of young people that are unemployed is currently the highest it has ever been and is predicted to continue to rise in 2010. It is therefore unsustainable to have a larger proportion of people going into retirement whilst the younger generations hold up the fort for them and continue to struggle to make ends meet in their own day-to-day lives.

So really the French should stop for a minute to ponder their actions and weigh out the pros and cons of this pension reform plan. Yes it will mean working a little longer, but in the long run will it not be beneficial to society? Admittedly governments can pass wrong judgments but they were elected to run the country and take exactly this kind of decision when it is necessary. Perhaps strikes in France should stop being a march of protest against everything the people don’t like about their president and become a more sensible protest. If this were the case, perhaps there would be fewer strikes in France altogether!

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