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Les manifs: Who won? Who cares?

Oliver Rowland looks back over the months of demonstrations and strikes at the government’s plans to increase the pensio

THE FINAL round of pension protests (manifestations) at the end of last month was essentially a gesture of defiance by the unions after losing their fight: France’s pension reforms are now set in stone.

After months of build-up, a law was approved by the Senate, 177 to 151, then the National Assembly, 336 to 233, before a go-ahead from the Conseil Constitutionnel. It was published in Le Journal Officiel just hours later.

The leading unions had been unanimous in condemning the changes, which they see as an intolerable attack on aquis sociaux (collective rights won by workers over the years).

However the government believes they are essential to reduce a €32 billion pension deficit and cope with an ageing population. Politically, the debate was split left and right, with the Socialists opposing a raised pension age.

The winners, then, are President Sarkozy and his UMP government, who will gain political credibility on the international stage for sticking to their guns despite the months of protests.

The unions and opposition have lost, as have, arguably, workers in France, though the government argues that change was inevitable to ensure fair pensions continue to be paid for generations to come.

The unions knew their last-ditch protests could not stop the law, whose key plank is an age rise from 60 to 62. Already on a previous protest day, November 6, CFDT head François Chérèque said: "If I said we were going to make the president back down now, everyone would say I was dreaming."

Now however, they have made a parting shot, including a joint statement that the "exceptional mobilisation" of the public in recent months has shown "glaring dissatisfaction of workers".

According to a recent Ifop poll, 53 per cent of people in France now find the raised pension age acceptable. The November 6 turnout was 375,000, according to the police; 1.2 million, according to the unions, compared to the one on October 12 (1.23m or 3.5m).

With strikes and marches proliferating since March, many will now want to move on. However, anyone who works in France, whether employed or self-employed, should care about the outcome.

What is more, it is certain that French residents have not heard the last of it. The law just passed includes provision, from September 2013, for a national debate on possible "fundamental reforms" of the many different pension regimes to which people belong. The possibility will be raised of putting a new universal system in place.

The law also provides for a report on the financial situation of the different regimes by spring 2018 to feed into a future pension reform law to keep France financially stable beyond 2020.

For the time being, the key change is a rise in the retirement age by four months a year from July 2011, reaching 62 by 2018. This means people born before June 30, 1951 can retire at 60, as now, whereas anyone born from the start of 1956 will retire at 62 (see below for more detail on what other changes mean).

The number of years to be worked to gain a full pension at the basic retirement age is set to rise from 40.5 to 41.5 in 2020. This compares to 30 years in the UK, though it has has a higher retirement age (66 for both sexes by 2020).

Other changes from July include:

- The age at which you can retire with a "full" pension, no matter how many years you worked, will go up by two years. The amount of a basic French state pension varies according to three factors: your average salary (those on higher salaries build up bigger pensions because they pay more social charges, though there is a cap), how many years you worked (your pension is proportional to this) and whether or not a décôte (penalty) is applied. The latter is an additional calculation that reduces your pension if you did not work the standard number of years. It does not apply after 65 at present, rising four months a year from July 2011 to 66 by 2019 and 67 in 2023. Contrary to some reports in the foreign press, however, you can still take a "full" French pension at 60 (rising to 62) if you worked the required number of trimesters by that age.

- The law includes exceptions to the rule on increasing the age for a full pension without the décôte. It will not apply to disabled people or, under certain conditions, to people who have raised a disabled child, and the current level will be maintained for five years for people born between July 1, 1951 and December 31, 1955 who brought up at least three children and interrupted or reduced their work in order to raise at least one of them. The same applies to people who interrupted their work to be a carer to a family member.

- Certain public sector workers with special early retirement ages (eg. police or train drivers), ranging from 50 to 57, will also have them gradually raised by two years from 2017.

- There is an exception to the extended retirement ages for people who suffer incapacity due to a work injury or work-related illness. They will still be able to retire at 60.

- There will be lower retirement ages for people who had "long careers": people who started work at 14 or 15 will be able to retire at 58 or 59, those who started at 16 or 17 at 60.

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