© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Protestors and French CGT labour union workers attend a demonstration as part of a nationwide day of strike and protests to push for government measures to address inflation, workers’ rights and pension reforms, in Paris, France, September 29,
By Caroline Pailliez and Ingrid Melander
PARIS (Reuters) -The French should work two years longer to age 64 before retiring, the government said on Tuesday, announcing an unpopular pension system overhaul that immediately prompted unions to call for strikes and protests.
The right to retire at a relatively young age is deeply cherished in France and the reform will be a major test of President Emmanuel Macron’s ability to deliver change as social discontent mounts over the cost of living.
The reform’s passage through parliament will not be easy. Macron’s government says it is vital to keep the pension budget out of the red. Unions argue the reform is unfair and unnecessary.
“Nothing justifies such a brutal reform,” Laurent Berger, leader of the moderate, reform-minded CFDT union, told reporters after trade union leaders agreed on a nationwide strike for Jan. 19, which will kick off a series of strikes and protests.
An Odoxa poll showed four out of five citizens oppose the higher retirement age.
“I’m well aware that changing our pension system raises questions and fears among the French,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne had told a news conference shortly before.
“We offer today a project to balance our pension system, a project that is fair,” she said, adding that France had to face reality.
Overhauling the pension system was a central pillar of Macron’s reformist agenda when he entered the Elysee Palace in 2017. But he shelved his first attempt in 2020 as the government battled to contain COVID-19.
The second attempt will not be any easier.
“It’s one slap in the face after another,” said 56-year-old Frederic Perdriel during a small protest in the western city of Rennes ahead of Borne’s announcement. “There are other ways to finance pensions than raising the retirement age.”
Macron and Borne will need to win support among conservative Les Republicains (LR) lawmakers in the coming months to pass the reform in parliament.
That looks less challenging than it did a few weeks ago after concessions on the retirement age – Macron had originally wanted it to be 65 – and a minimum pension.
Olivier Marleix, who leads the LR group in the lower house of parliament, reacted positively to Borne’s announcements.
“They heard us,” he said, while asking for more efforts to ensure employment for people close to retirement age.
Even so, LR is divided on the issue, so every vote counts.
The Socialists, the hard-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and the far-right’s National Rally were swift to denounce the reform. Left-wing lawmaker Mathilde Panot branded the plan “archaic, unfair, brutal, cruel.”
“The French can count on our determination to block this unfair reform,” the far-right’s Marine Le Pen said.
Under the government plan, the retirement age will be raised by three months per year from September, reaching the target age of 64 in 2030.
From 2027, eight years earlier than planned in past reforms, it will be necessary to have worked 43 years to receive a full pension.
Other measures aim to boost the employment rate among 60 to 64-year-olds, which is one of the lowest among leading industrialised nations.
With one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialised world, France also spends more than most countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.