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Key points: French government unveils plan to raise retirement age to 64

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Tuesday unveiled details of the government's delayed - and highly controversial - reform of the pension system.

Key points: French government unveils plan to raise retirement age to 64
Unions rallying against proposed changes to the French pension system. Photo by Damien MEYER / AFP

Originally due to be announced in mid December, the government had delayed in order to have further consultations with political opponents and unions leaders in a (probably doomed) attempt to bring them on board with the reforms.

Presenting the outlines of the government’s plans on Tuesday after months of suspense, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said that doing nothing about projected deficits for the pension system would be “irresponsible”.

“It would lead inevitably to a massive increase in taxes, a reduction in pensions and would pose a threat to our pensions system,” she said.

Here are the main parts of the plan announced on Tuesday;

Retirement age of 64 – this was undoubtedly the most controversial part of the reform, and a retirement age of 65 was initially envisaged. The government appears to have compromised on this, but the raising of the pension age from the current 62 is still likely to be unpopular.

Gradual implementation – Borne said: “I say clearly, no, this project will not be implemented overnight: the retirement age will be raised gradually, over a period of eight years.” The age will be raised gradually by three months at a time, reaching 64 in 2030.

Exceptions for people who start work early – the retirement age will remain at 58 for those who started working before the age of 16. For those who started between 16 and 18, it will be from 60. And for those who started between 18 and 20, it will be 62.

Final age of 67 – conversely, there is also an upper age for those who start work late – for example after completing long higher education courses. French workers normally have to pay a minimum number of contributions (amounting to 43 years of work for most people) in order to secure a full pension, but they can retire at 67 even if they have not completed the minimum number of payments (the system is different for those who have worked and contributed to a pension in another country).

Exceptions for certain professions – certain active or dangerous professions will keep a retirement age of 62, for example firefighters and members of the military.

End of ‘special regimes’ – The ‘special regimes’ that certain workers enjoyed that gave them earlier retirement ages and other privileges will end. Among those affected are train drivers and employees of the Paris public transport network, gas and electrical engineers and notaires. It is a question of fairness,” said Borne.

Increased minimum pension – pensions in France are based on contributions, but there is a minimum level and anyone whose pension is below that is entitled to top-ups. This minimum will be raised to 85 percent of minimum wage, which would be €1,200 a month based on the current minimum wage. 

READ ALSO How does France’s pension age of 62 compare to the rest of Europe?

Borne has previously laid out the timetable for the political process – the detailed plans will go before the Council of Ministers on January 23rd and then proceed to parliament for a (likely extremely fraught) debate at the start of February. The stated aim is to have the reforms passed and in place by September 1st.

However, there is likely to be plenty of opposition – both from opponents in the parliament and on the street.

The Macron government lost its majority in the June parliamentary elections, so in order to get this bill passed it will either have to make a deal with a rival party – most likely the centre-right les Républicains – or resort to the emergency power known an Article 49.3 to push it through without a majority vote.

Even before the details of the plan were revealed, unions had threatened ‘mobilisation’ in January. A joint statement by unions later on Tuesday confirmed they would call their first strike for January 19th.

Borne also acknowledged widespread public opposition to the changes and a looming battle with trade unions.

“I’m very aware that making changes to our retirement system is causing anxiety and fears among French people,” she told the press conference.

All attempts over the past 30 years to reform the pension system have been controversial, leading to the two longest-running strikes in the post-war period in 1995 and again in 2019/20. 

READ ALSO the 30-year battle to reform France’s pension system

The French pension system is currently in credit, but predicted to go into debt next year, a situation that is predicted to worsen as the population lives longer. According to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, the pension system would have a deficit of €13.5 billion by 2030 if nothing was changed. 

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STRIKES

France faces huge disruption as pension protests kick off

France woke up to a day of paralysis on Tuesday with transport blockages, mass strikes and demonstrations hitting the country for the second time in a month to protest a planned reform to raise the retirement age.

France faces huge disruption as pension protests kick off

Around one million people are expected to take to the streets nationwide, a police source told AFP, rallying against plans to boost the age of retirement from 62 to 64.

Some 11,000 police were mobilised across the country, with 4,000 deployed in Paris where several hundred extremist troublemakers were expected, according to the interior ministry.

France currently has the youngest age for becoming a pensioner in any major European economy.

On January 19, some 1.1 million voiced their opposition to the proposed shake-up — the largest protests since the last major round of pension reform in 2010.

Millions had to find alternative means of transport Tuesday, work from home or take time off to look after their school-age children, with workers in transport and education sectors among those staging walkouts.

“This is about more than pensions, it is about what kind of society we want,” 59-year-old university professor Martine Beugnet told AFP, saying she would take part in Tuesday’s protest.

Most Paris metro and suburban rail services were severely restricted, the capital’s transport operator RATP said.

Intercity travel was also disrupted, with just one in three high-speed trains likely to run, railway company SNCF predicted.

‘Get another train’ 

In the southwestern city of Bordeaux, Cheikh Sadibou Tamamate, 36, arrived at the train station in the small hours of Tuesday, hoping to catch a morning train to Paris after the one he was booked on around 5:00 am (0400 GMT) never left.

“Unfortunately it was cancelled,” he said.

Sitting on a bench with an open laptop Guillaume Chaux, 32, said he discovered his train had been cancelled as he arrived at the station, but he still hoped to make it to London Tuesday.

“I’m looking at travel apps to see if I can get another train. Nobody has told me anything,” he said.

Air travel is to be less badly affected, with national carrier Air France saying it would cancel one in 10 short and medium-haul services, but long-distance flights would be unaffected.

Only minor disruptions were expected on international train services including the Eurostar.

Around half of all nursery and primary school teachers would be striking, the main teachers’ union Snuipp-FSU said.

France’s oil industry was mostly paralysed, with the hardleft CGT union at energy giant TotalEnergies reporting between 75 and 100 percent of workers on strike.

‘Non-negotiable’

Sixty-one percent of French people support the protest movement, a new poll by the OpinionWay survey group showed on Monday — a rise of three percentage points from January 12.

The most controversial part of the overhaul is hiking the minimum retirement age.

But the changes are also to increase the number of years people have to make contributions before they can receive a full pension.

President Emmanuel Macron put pensions reform at the heart of his re-election campaign last year.

The 45-year-old centrist on Monday said the changes were “essential when we compare ourselves to the rest of Europe”, where people typically retire later.

He insists they are necessary to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

But opponents point out that the system is currently balanced, quoting the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council as saying: “Pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

The government has signalled there could be wiggle room on some of the suggested measures, but Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has said raising the age of retirement was “non-negotiable”.

Parliament committees started examining the bill on Monday, where Macron and his allies also face an uphill battle.

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority, will need votes from conservatives to push through the new legislation.

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