France to Raise Retirement Age: Is it An ‘Au Revoir’ to the Good Life?

BY Michael D. Mosettig  September 15, 2010 at 5:16 PM EDT


Protests in France. Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps it is “au revoir” to the good life. Why else would thousands of French men and women be on the streets protesting what seems like a small change in the country’s pension laws?

On Wednesday, the French National Assembly gave its final approval to a law raising from 60 to 62 the minimum age for retirement and from 65 to 67 the age at which a full state pension kicks in.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said the changes were essential to save billions in government pension payments and to make France more competitive with such neighbors as Germany.

And according to Justin Vaisse, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “most French people realized something had to give” after partial reforms since 1994 failed to close the government’s pension deficit.

But there were massive public protests, and Vaisse said the one concession the Sarkozy government made to demonstrating union members was to make it easier for workers in heavy industry to collect disability payments.

The symbolism may loom as large for many French people as the changes themselves. The lower retirement age was ushered in by executive decree by President Francois Mitterrand, part of a series of measures by the Socialist governments of the 1980s that also included a 35-hour work week. All were symbols of emphasizing quality of life in a country where long lunches and even longer vacations prevail.

But maybe not much longer as France confronts “mondialisation” or globalization, and is forced to compete not only with some of its northern European neighbors but even more the rising economic powerhouses of Asia and Latin America.

“It’s the end of a way of living, and it’s the end of happy days,” the Guardian quoted Parti de Gauche leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Sarkozy’s conservatives have to votes to push the bill past its last parliamentary step with a Senate vote anticipated next month. But if opposition Socialists return to power, as seems increasingly likely given Sarkozy’s plummeting poll ratings, they are divided on what they would do about the retirement age. One possible presidential candidate Martine Aubry, who happens to be the author of the 35-hour work week, promised to push it back to 60. But another presidential possibility, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, now running the International Monetary Fund, says the Socialists should not be dogmatic on the issue.