Opinion: Macron is dragging France’s retirement age out of the 17th century

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.


The last time President Emmanuel Macron tried to drag France’s antiquated pension and retirement system from the 17th century into the 21st century with one long pull, mobs coursed through the streets of Paris, flaming barricades went up on the Champs Elysées and Macron’s entire presidency nearly floundered in the face of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests).

Now, four years later, trying again with a few tweaks of appeasement, Macron doesn’t seem very likely to escape a much different fate. On Tuesday, the French government announced plans to raise the official retirement age from 62 to 64 to qualify for a full pension.

Backlash from trade unions was swift. The first nationwide protest strike has already been fixed for January 19.

But Macron is a determined man. The French budget risks floundering on pensions that are siphoning off nearly 14% of the nation’s GDP each year – roughly twice the drain than in the United Sates and behind only Italy and Greece in Europe.

In announcing the plan, the Macron government pointed out that without some reform, the nation’s budget risks accumulating an almost $20 billion annual deficit by 2030. “Otherwise, we’ll be financing our retirement system on credit,” Macron said.

The French have long and fiercely defended their labor rights in the face of government reform. In the 1980s, when I lived on the Rue de Solférino, across the street from the headquarters of the ruling Socialist Party, farmers dumped truckloads of carrots in protest against agricultural reforms. More recently, they’ve marched hordes of sheep and pigs through the streets of Paris in protest against rising farming costs.

The question in the face of the French public’s pig-headedness is whether Macron’s determination and appeal to rational economics is enough. And what model might a second Macron failure set for the rest of the world? If France can’t reform, how can other countries, weighed down by rapidly aging populations and fragile economies, manage?

A changing demographic

Currently, all men and women in France can retire with full pensions at 62 – tied with Sweden and Norway for the lowest retirement age in western Europe. Macron wants to raise that age by just two years (still below the United States and United Kingdom, where the retirement age is between 66 and 67, depending on the year born).

But there are special exemptions dating back to the time of Louis XIV. After performing on the stage for 10 years, actors of the Comédie Française – the classical French theater founded by the great playwright Molière – are entitled to claim a lifetime pension. This dates to the company’s creation in 1680.

Dancers in the Paris Opera can retire with full pension at the age of 42, a custom that dates to 1689, as Louis XIV was anxious to establish an opera and ballet company that would be the envy of Europe. Stagehands at both companies can still take their retirement at 57. Then there are train conductors who can bow out at age 52.

Though life expectancies have changed dramatically over the centuries, pension schemes have not. In France, life expectancy in the mid-18th century was just 25 years, rising to between 60 and 70 by the end of the Second World War. These days, life expectancy in France is a little over 79 for men and 85 for women. But the retirement ages have utterly failed to keep pace.

France’s powerful unions

In all, there are at least 42 different pension schemes, most of them cemented into law during the chaotic period at the end of the Second World War. And there is still a cacophony of eight trade union federations – more than in Germany, Italy and Britain combined. Now, Macron is proposing to do away with all the special deals for everyone from subway motormen to tellers in the Banque de France.

They will all come under a single national retirement umbrella. And 64 will be the age with a uniform minimum pension of a little over 1,300 Euros ($1,400) per month. Still, some of the old rules are just too deeply embedded to tackle. The new system won’t apply to the Paris Opera, Comédie Française, nor fishermen, lawyers or the “liberal professions” (doctors, dentists and architects, among others).

For everyone else, however, the unions are taking up arms. France’s leading trade unions carry political and social muscle far beyond anything wielded by their American counterparts. At the same time, Macron has little of the same persuasive ability, institutionally, as President Joe Biden had when he called on Congress to act last month to avert a catastrophic rail strike that threatened to paralyze American transportation and commerce.

The third rail of French politics

With the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic apparently behind him, and a second term presidential win under his belt (although his parliamentary majority has faded to an unruly plurality), Macron clearly felt now was the time to implement his long-dreamed reforms.

He will have a battle on his hands. France’s nationwide yellow vest protests four years ago were touched off by rising fuel prices, but quickly morphed into complaints against a far broader agenda. In particular, inflation fueled by gas prices that were hitting the pocketbooks of retirees especially hard. The third rail of French politics has long been pensions and retirement. All too often, the French quite simply live to stop working.

“We have to be able to face reality and find solutions to preserve our social model,” French Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne observed as she announced what the administration was couching as a compromise measure. During his reelection campaign last year, Macron floated a retirement age of 65. He’s hoping that shaving a year off this number might make it at least a trifle more palatable. Fat chance.

“Nothing justifies such a brutal reform,” Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate CFDT union, told reporters after the reform plan was disclosed. That’s one way of looking at it. But in fact, the retirement age will be phased in quite gently – rising by just three months per year and not arriving at the age of 64 until 2030.

None of this is likely to silence union leaders who have any number of significant allies across France’s vast political spectrum – all of them seeing retirement as a way to eviscerate Macron’s second and last five-year term.

“The French can count on our determination to block this unfair reform,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, who Macron defeated in the presidential elections last April. At the other end of the spectrum, Mathilde Panot, from the far-left France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party tweeted that the plan was “archaic, unfair, brutal, cruel.”

Now, however, the battle is on. That’s some model for America and its unions at the debut of a newly budget-minded Congress. Not to mention a European Union poised on the brink of a recession.