retirement in France

Retirement, Strikes, and Spring in France

Well, to understand these protests, you have to understand how the French see their life and work narrative,” I told a client last week. “They go to school, get a degree or certification, work until they are 62, and then expect to get paid out for the rest of their lives. This is a ‘right’ that they imply is part of French life, but in truth, is younger than their grandparents.” I went on to discuss a bit more about how the French hire vendors and protect workers from being fired, giving greater context to how retirement fits into the French world of work. These protests are not entirely understandable to those of us in the Anglo-Saxon world.

A soundbite that has made its way onto both French and English-speaking media came from a worker who said something along the lines of these protests being about “Wanting to enjoy our lives, not just work” as if the French wait until 62 to enjoy their lives. The French have a 35-hour work week, generous days off and significant vacation, and some of the most unbelievable work benefits you’ll see in the developed world. They are not “waiting until 62” to “enjoy their lives.” They might be waiting until 62 to voluntarily stop working, but that’s a truly novel concept.

In fact, the more I examine the pension programs of many so-called democracies, the more I’m confused as to why people expect consistency or accountability for what is essentially a legalized and government-backed Ponzi scheme.

In my country of citizenship, the US, our “Social Security Trust Fund” is non-existent. It was raided so many times by improvident legislators that all we have now in America is a pass-through system. What money is paid into the system by current workers every week (some of whom, by the way, are also receiving Social Security benefits) goes right out the door to retirees that same week. Social Security, set up as a way to give dignity to impoverished elderly citizens, is now a de facto retirement plan for hundreds of millions of Americans. It was never meant to be that and the strains on the system only underline that every day.

While France’s welfare promises lies don’t date back to the 1930s, but only to the establishment of the Fifth Republic, which is younger than my mother, the French seem to have it firmly in their mind that they are entitled to a retirement, and at an age relatively younger than almost every country around them in Europe. The same problems with this narrative exist in the US:

  • The entire Ponzi scheme depends on a steady stream of workers, ideally, an increasing number, but the US and French birthrates are indicating an aging population, which means that the financial problems are only going to get worse sooner and faster.
  • “Retirement” in which you get paid close to what you earned during your productive years, during which the state pays you to be non-productive, is an ahistorical fantasy with no real track record of success. Indeed, all we see now are countries scrambling to keep the promises they originally made by raising the retirement age. We can expect that age to be moved upwards again when reality and mathematics catches up to a given calendar year.
  • Aging populations, the apparently “responsible” and “hard-working” generations that raised us, provided zero leadership to deal with this train wreck in the making, and are now simply insisting that they get what they paid for (never mind that their contributions never come close, even with theoretical interest, to their withdrawals) and damn the generations to come.

Somehow in my ten years in France I’ve only ever skirted on the edges of protests. I was out of town when the Yellow Vests kicked off, and even during the last big transportation strikes, in 2019, I was only around for a week or so of what was a month of misery for many of my fellow Parisians. Indeed, the biggest effect of the transportation strikes in 2019 for me and many other Parisians was a significant movement towards bikes, both shared and private ones. However, this time, with rolling strikes over the last weeks, I’ve been seriously affected, sometimes cancelling trips to Paris due to logistical nightmares. Some larger context first.

Now that I live in Moret I regularly take the RER to get into Paris. It’s an easy 45 minutes on a fast train, when all things are normal. When they aren’t, and the twice-ever-hour, four-times-during-peak-hours trains are reduced by a third or more in frequency, enormous queues pile up from commuters anxious to make sure they get on a train and don’t have to wait hours for the next one.

To offer a personal insight into this I can share what happened a few Saturdays ago as I prepared to head into Paris to discuss King Lear with some fellow Shakespeare lovers. I was going to leave around 12h25 to get in to meet some other friends at 14h00 before the discussion at 16h00. But since I’m the opposite of tuned-in to the news, I found out about the strike when I rolled into the station at 12h00, about 20 minutes before the train I thought I would take.

As I scrolled through my options on Citymapper (the station window was closed — they were on strike too) I saw I could head further away from Paris and then catch another inbound RER which was running on time. The alternatives were to take replacement buses, which were not only significantly slower but would slightly complicate bringing along my bike which I had with me. Knowing that I had no idea what could happen, I locked up my bike at the station in Moret and took the chance on going further out to come back in. I messaged my friends that I wouldn’t be able to see them but I felt confident I could still make it in time for 16h00 and Lear. It was noon after all.

Or so I thought.

Twenty minutes later I found myself at Montereau, where the train that I would take to Sens, then change platforms and take directly to Paris with no stops, would leave from. In the meantime I sat in the sunshine and read a book. An hour later I casually made my way to the platform where the display indicated the on-time arrival of the train I wanted. Until it started showing delays.

When it first started showing a five minute delay, I shrugged it off as no problem, because I had 25 some minutes to change trains in Sens. Then the delays started stacking until it showed more than 35 minutes. I realized Plan A was not going to work.

I looked at the monitors and saw a train that would come to Montereau by 15h13, but that would mean it would be 16h30 at the earliest that I could meet my group, especially since I would need to rely on the Metro instead of my bike.

That train was on time and by 16h10 or so I was in the Metro system of Paris, trying to navigate to the cafe I was meeting everyone at. Thankfully, someone who was already going to help me moderate the discussion had committed to starting it without me, helping me avoid the horror of making everyone wait while I moved in slow motion through my transportation nightmare.

As I stepped onto my Line 8 change at Bastille, I heard the announcement say as the Metro doors were closing (too late!) that because of the street protests that were running down that street towards Republique that all the stations between there and Strasbourg-Saint Denis were closed. I shrugged, realizing that at least I was in Paris and not stuck waiting for a train. About 50 yards from the Strasbourg-Saint Denis stop, our metro stopped, waiting for more distance from the train just now leaving the platform. Our driver had neglected to lock the doors and a homeless man decided he wasn’t going to wait, opened the doors, and casually walked down the track.

A huge collective groan came from our car as we realized the entire train would be “locked down” until the man could be positively identified as being out of harm’s way. A French person explained the situation to a tourist rather humorously, “Even the homeless here in Paris are in a hurry.”

Thankfully, though, it seemed as though positive identification was relayed that the man was spotted coming out of the tunnel and leaving the station so, a few minutes later we were cleared to proceed further. That meant that I could then exit the station, rent an e-scooter, and head towards Maison Plisson, where everyone had already been talking, over coffee, wine, and cocktails, about one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays for the last hour.

I joined the discussion, doing my best not to think about the fact that I had started a journey at 12h00 and it was now 17h15. I wanted to focus on whether we found Regan and Goneril’s poor treatment of their father justified or if Cordelia was lying when she said, “No cause, no cause” in Act V instead of wondering what the CGT and other unions hoped to get from me by destroying my Saturday plans.

Do they think I’m going to call the government now and say, ‘Please give in to their demands?’” I asked a French friend the week after. “No, Stephen,” she responded. “The idea is that the French presidents usually don’t do well with civil discontent or unrest, and the government will make a U-turn.” A lot of hay has also been made of the specific article of the constitution that was used to push the legislation through, but anyone paying the slightest bit of attention knows that this procedure has been used almost 100 times since the inauguration of the Fifth Republic. Not exactly breaking news.

Yet strangely, this make-him-u-turn strategy was a plausible one with this president, as he’s rarely put forward a policy that he hasn’t immediately U-turned on, all the way back to the Yellow Vests’ dramatic first protest over the rise in fuel duties. And yet, a president who has accomplished close to nothing in his 6+ years in office has decided that the one thing he isn’t going to U-turn on is this issue. Strange indeed.

You have to give credit where credit is due. It’s unsurprising that a trained banker like Macron is going to ignore grim financial reports, though, given the recent bank failures in America and Switzerland, perhaps that’s precisely what trained (and untrained) bankers do. Macron is insisting that the French accept that the Fifth Republic made a promise that it couldn’t possibly keep, because everyone is ignoring a major premise it was based on: a growing native population. To cope with crashing birth rates Europe has decided to import that growth through immigration, causing understandable frictions as those non-native populations fail (or refuse to) assimilate to their new cultures.

As for what the locals are doing and saying, I’ve seen graffiti in Paris saying “vive la commune” and road signs by the freeway in Burgundy saying “retraite a 60” (talk about doubling-down!). It is true that there is general discontent but discontent is not itself righteous. Indeed, what we are seeing is collective delusion among the French who have a good life and think the party will go on forever, despite the laws of mathematics.

After Mass this last Sunday some of us mulled over our plans for week ahead, as sunny skies heralded a change in season. We knew that the unrest among the people would continue for a while longer, perhaps scuttling some of those plans. But never underestimate the ability of the weather to weaken the French “resolve” on this (and any) issue. Yes, they are discontented, but more than once I’ve watched “protests” melt away as the weather has improved.

The French, after all, prefer to enjoy that weather on a terrace with friends or at a picnic in the park than spend it en marche. They want to “enjoy their lives” after all, and don’t let anyone in the media make you believe they have to wait until 64 to do so.

Photo by user HJBC on Shutterstock.

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