How do pensions in France compare to the rest of Europe?

Proposals to change the French pension system have provoked mass strikes across France, bringing some parts of the country to a virtual standstill. But just how good do the French have it when it comes to pensions?

How do pensions in France compare to the rest of Europe?
French pensioners on average get a good deal at present. Photo: AFP

French unions have called the current strikes in response to a proposal by the government to reform the country's current pension system.

The government says its reforms are largely about fairness and transparency – at the moment France has 42 different pension regimes which vary widely in terms of both how pensions are calculated and what age workers can retire at.

The country's legal retirement age is 62, but many people with 'special regimes' such as SNCF train drivers and Metro drivers are able to retire much earlier, in some cases from the age of 55.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED What are 'special' pension regimes and why are French people striking to protect them?

Workers striking over the French government's pension plans. Photo The Local

But the unions fear that the proposed reforms will leave workers seriously out of pocket, struggling to get by on much smaller pensions and will also see people working longer in order to be able to retire on a full pension.

They point out that many special regimes were negotiated to compensate people who either earn lower wages or who do physically demanding or dangerous work.

But how does France's regime compare to those of other European countries?

Retirement age

In terms of retirement age French workers do pretty well – the legal age of 62 is one of the lowest in Europe, according to data from economic forum the OECD.

It's not the lowest though – four countries have ages that are lower for at least some of the population. In Austria women can retire at 60 and in Bulgaria at 61 years and 2 months.

Norway and Sweden both have flexible retirement systems which encourage later retirement, but the official age is 62 in Sweden and 61 in Norway and in Poland women can retire at the age of 60.

Many countries have plans in place to increase retirement ages in the future as the population lives longer, but here are the current legal retirement ages in Europe;

  • Germany – 65 years 7 months
  • Austria – 65 for men, 60 for women
  • Belgium – 65
  • Bulgaria – 64 years and 1 month for men, 61 years and 2 months for women
  • Denmark – 65
  • Spain – 65
  • Finland – 63 years and 3 months
  • France – 62
  • Greece – 67 or 62 (depending on the level of insurance)
  • Hungary – 64
  • Ireland – 66
  • Iceland – 67
  • Italy – 67
  • Luxembourg – 65
  • Norway – 62
  • The Netherlands – 66 years and 2 months
  • Poland – 65 for men and 60 for women
  • Portugal – 66 years and 5 five months
  • UK – 65
  • Sweden – 61
  • Switzerland – 65 for men, 64 for women

But the legal age doesn't tell the whole story because, as mentioned, many French people have special regimes which allow them to retire early. 

Therefore the average age for retirement in France is 60, set against the European average of 63 and the OECD average of 64.

Of course for many people what really determines when they can retire is not the legal age, but how much they have accrued in their pension pot.

So women who have had career breaks to raise children, for example, can find themselves losing out.

The official retirement age in France will not be changing – president Emmanuel Macron made it a campaign promise that the legal age would stay at 62 – but if some of the early retirement 'special regimes' are phased out, the average retirement age could rise.

The government has also been considering introducing a “pivot age” of 64, meaning workers will still be able to end their careers at 62 but could continue working for longer to earn a higher pension.

How much do you get?

The other difference could be in how pensions are calculated.

Many special regimes – particularly in the public sector – calculate a person's pension based purely on the last six months of their salary before retirement, while most people who work in the private sector have theirs calculated on the basis of their highest-earning 25 years of work.

This is another thing that the government wants to reform, bringing in a universal system of pension calculation, with 'points' earned for every euro and also accumulated for things like working anti-social hours or working in a profession with risks to health.

Currently, in terms of how much they receive, French workers also do well with the average pension equivalent to 74 percent of the person's salary at the time they retired – one of the most generous in Europe and well above the OECD average of 58 percent.

In this comparison Spanish workers come out on top, with an average 82 percent of their leaving salary.

Italy's pension scheme – which heavily in debt and also the subject of urgent reforms – gives 65 percent, while in Germany workers get 48 percent of their leaving salary and in Sweden the rate is 45.5 percent.

The UK comes out worst with a distinctly stingy 28 percent of the worker's most recent salary, although it should be pointed out that this is only the state pension and a lot of British workers also have a private pension to supplement their income, usually arranged through their company.

Public spending on pensions represents 14 percent of GDP in France – only Greece and Italy spend a higher proportion in Europe.

In terms of mandatory contributions to public pensions schemes the French contribute some of the highest percentage of wages in Europe.

On average the French pay 11.2 percent of their wagers into pensions schemes with only the Netherlands (18%) Poland (11.3%) and Slovenia (15.5%) having higher rates.

The OECD says: “The highest total mandatory contribution rates (including employer's contributions) are found in Italy at 33.0%. The Czech Republic, France and Poland also have high effective contribution rates, between 26% and 28%.

“Countries with higher pension contribution rates will often have above average pension benefits (as in the case of France, Iceland, Italy and the Netherlands).”

Another interesting stat to compare is the post-retirement life expectancy rates for different countries. France tops the people with men living for an average of 22.7 years after they end their careers and women 26.9 years.

France was followed by Spain, Greece and then Italy. In the UK men have a post-retirement life expectancy of 18.9 years and women 22.2 years (see table below).


Is it enough to live on?

The generosity of the pension regimes relate to the rates of poverty seen among pensioners, with France having one of the lowest rates – although still a high number – of 9.5 percent of pensioners living in poverty.

This compares to 16.1 percent in Sweden, 17 percent in the UK and 20 percent in Germany.

And as you would expect – people who retire early are are less likely to live in poverty tend to live longer overall, with France having one of the highest life expectancy rates in Europe.

On average, French people live to be 82.27 and enjoy 20.27 years of retirement.




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French customs officers strike over job cuts

Customs officers across France will walk out on Thursday in protest at job cuts that unions say will “weaken the customs network”.

French customs officers strike over job cuts

The national strike on Thursday, March 10th is expected to lead to delays at ports, airports and on the Eurostar.

The strike, which will include a rally outside the National Assembly building in Paris, was called by the CFDT-Douane and has the support of other unions. 

A work-to-rule protest over pay and conditions by customs officers in 2019, under the shadow of Brexit, led to delays and disruption at airports, as well as ports including Calais and Dunkirk, and on Eurostar trains.

Unions are calling on the government to axe plans to switch responsibility for import duty collection to the Direction Générale des Finances Publiques by 2024, at the cost of 700 customs’ officer jobs – and, according to strikers, tens of billions of euros to State coffers.

“We are asking for the reforms to be stopped, mainly that of the transfer of taxation, which is disorganising the network with the elimination of nearly a thousand jobs,” CFDT-Douane’s secretary general David-Olivier Caron said.

The planned job cuts come after years of restructuring and streamlining that has seen thousands of positions disappear, the unions say, when customs fraud and smuggling is rising because of a lack of resources.