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Explaining the French Pension Reform Strikes to Americans

The French pension reform is hardly a long, tranquil river. Our Paris-based columnist took a crack at explaining what pushed thousands of French railway and publictransit workers, pensioners, medical staff, and teachers to take to the streets.

France has been paralyzed recently by mass strikes and demonstrations over the government’s plans to reform the pension system. At present, there are 42 mandatory pension schemes (or régimes spéciaux) serving different professions, from railway workers and civil servants to farmers and actors, alongside a public scheme which everyone not otherwise covered has to contribute to. President Emmanuel Macron wants to merge these schemes into a single, universal system based on points, la retraite par points, which would be accumulated throughout a person’s working life.

One of the big sticking points is the proposal, put forward by pension czar Jean-Paul Delevoye, to raise the minimum retirement age, currently 62, to 64, applying penalties for those retiring earlier and offering incentives to people who continue working. Many fear that they will have to work longer for less. Pension reform has always been a hot-button issue in France and frequently sparks huge protests. In 1995 the then-president, Jacques Chirac, had to back down from a reform plan in the face of massive strikes lasting several weeks. President Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, succeeded in pushing through changes — including raising the retirement entitlement age from 60 to 62 — but he, too, balked at a large-scale overhaul.

The current bout of strikes and demonstrations follows on the heels of the gilets jaunes protests, and many predict that the unrest will rumble on until Christmas and beyond. Some commentators complain about yet another example of France’s inbred gréviculture, while others express sympathy for the movement and its aims. Whatever happens in the future, though, the reform process will not be un long fleuve tranquille!


=> The January 2020 issue of
France-Amérique sees the start of a new column with an educational thrust. Each month, From the Newsdesk will feature a short, topical article on recent events in France, with notes on context and vocabulary. The aim is to help our readers understand what’s happening on the political, educational, and cultural scenes in France and to explain some of the related terminology, which may be unfamiliar.

  • Merci ! J’etais a Paris Devembre 2019, malheuresement pour une semaine seule ! On a marche beaucoup, c’est bon pour la sante ! Aussi, je suis une membre d’un syndicat a NY State, alors felicitations la France pour standing up for workers’ rights !

  • I teach French history courses at an American university, and I enjoy using your articles to explore the dynamism of the French experience and help U.S. students make connections between France “then and now.”

  • Il y a tres longtemps que je vis aux US et je ne comprends pas tres bien le systeme de retraite de mon pays natal. Pourquoi qu’une personne peut prendre sa retraite plus tot a cause de la penibilite de son travail et qui decide qu’un travail est penible ?

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