French in front line fight to keep pension rights

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The French have never shied from the barricades in defence of workers rights.

And according to the French unions around 2.5 million people came onto the streets last week, in protest at government plans to increase the minimum retirement age, from 60 to 62.

It is the cornerstone of the government's pension reforms, change that Jean-Francois Cope, President of the ruling UMP party in the Assembly, believes is unavoidable.

"Progressively we are going to change the debate," he said. "We are now talking about 'labour for seniors'.

"If you postpone the minimum retirement age, the dialogue between employer and employee must change. From now on the employer talking to a 50-year-old employee will not be discussing retirement, instead he will talking about the next step in the 50 year old's professional career. "

Before these reforms, approved by the National Assembly on Friday a French worker could retire and receive full pension from the age of 60, as long as he or she had worked 40 years.

It is known as a repartition system.

Broadly speaking the government distributes to the retired, the money collected each year from those in work.

But a system like that is highly susceptible to unemployment and to changing demographics.

And to students like Emilien, about to enter the workplace, the reforms are hugely unsettling.

"I am worried. My generation will work far longer than those retiring today," he says. "I might not even get a job until I am 27. I will probably have to work 10 years longer than my parents. And who can guarantee there will be a pension at the end of it."

Almost inevitable

Generally speaking though, public opinion has moved in favour of the changes; they might not like them, but the French recognise they are almost inevitable.

The unions know they are unlikely to build enough support to force the President to back down. But they have won enough concession to save face and Thierry Dedieu of the CFDT union believes they have forced a debate on the kind of working life people want.

"Can we continue to extend indefinitely the length of the working life?" he asks. "We don't talk about the model of society we want, what is reasonable, what is sustainable."

M Dedieu continues: "Is it acceptable that some will contribute to the system for 45 years while others will have contributed only 35 or 40 years? People see the unfairness in the system. We know there is need for reform. But we think this is a debate for a presidential election. It can't be something we debate in the space of three months."

At least the unions have forced debate on 700 amendments. And concessions have already been made to those in difficult and strenuous jobs.

Jean-Francois Cope does not deny a debate is needed. "But it should also encompass," he says, "a debate on productivity and, ultimately, the level of contributions people are happy to make. "

State dependency

Which brings us back to the way retirement is funded. In this country there is no tradition of privately funded pensions. The people have always depended on the state. "There is a contract of trust, which the government is expected to uphold," says French Economist Xavier Timbeau.

"There has always been more trust in the state than in financial markets, and that is even more the case after the recent crisis. To Frenchmen the state is supposed to be the fair distributor of wealth. When they tamper with that, people get upset, which perhaps explains the scale of the recent demonstrations."

No doubt there is a sneaking admiration in the rest of Europe for the way in which the French have so far defended their quality of life. But change is coming.

Mr Cope says the retirement age may need to rise to 63 by 2018. The socialists are pledging to return it to 60 if elected in 2012.

It is a debate that could well define the next Presidential campaign. It is one that will certainly define in what kind of world the French want to live and work.

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