Retirees protest in France: how do pensions compare with US and UK?

Rise in cost-of-living brings pensions back into public debate

More than one million people took to the streets in January 2023 to protest against a government plan to raise the retirement age to 64
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Retirees in France have staged protests across the country demanding an increase to their pensions amid the effects of inflation and the rising cost of living but to many foreigners France’s pensions can appear generous.

On March 26, at protests in front of prefectures around France, the CGT workers unions and retirees demanded an immediate 10% increase in pensions.

The unions say the rise is needed to account for increases in the cost-of-living, energy and inflation in recent years.

“We see people who can't use their cars anymore due to the price of fuel, who can only eat one meal a day,” General secretary of the CGT union Var syndicate of retirees Brigitte Cheinet told Humanité.

This follows the protests of January 2023 when more than one million people (Interior ministry figures) took to the streets to protest against a government plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030.

Both protests left foreign observers baffled by the ostensibly entitled attitude of retirees.

French pensions were already increased by 5.5% above year-on-year inflation in the 2024 budget.

According to economics data from 2021 (the latest available) from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average French pension is €17,640. This compares to a UK average in 2021 of €14,900 for combined state and private pensions.

While this is lower than the US average of €25,451, French workers can retire earlier than workers in the US or UK at 64 rather than 66 or 67. In certain circumstances you can retire before this - such as if you started work early - there is a state simulator to check this here.

In addition to the main pension pot, there are 27 régimes spéciaux, or special pension pots for certain work sectors, such as musicians, soldiers or railway workers. While the 2023 pension reforms closed these schemes to new adherents, millions - particularly in the public sector - continue to contribute to them.

However, most French retirees share from one of the common pension pots - fed by sectors of work activity - rather than rely on private pensions to supplement a low state pension as in the UK and US.

France does not have a ‘state pension’ per se: people receive a maximum of 50% of the aggregate best 25 years of their salary, with a minimum rate of 37.5% for those born after 1953.

The rate is determined by a percentage calculated from a set of conditions, dependent on the individual worker’s career. For instance, those who worked fewer than the full number of years will receive a lower rate.

While you have to work between 166 and 172 quarters to receive a full French pension, people who have worked less than this can claim a pension too, albeit not at the full level.

If you have worked in France for 10 years, this equates to 40 quarters. As a consequence, rather than earning the 50% your previous wage at age 67, you will see your previous earnings drop by 50% minus a 37.5% reduction for not completing the full pension contributions.

Read also: Is there a way to check my French pension contributions?

The system is expensive, costing up to 13% of France’s GDP, far more than in both the UK (4.9%) and US (7.1%).

However, its value also establishes the system as a key part of republican life: workers who contributed their pay to the system are entitled to their pensions adjusted for inflation and the price of living according to the principles of egalité and fraternité.

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