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article imageOp-Ed: When will French unions wake up to retirement realities?

By Michael Cosgrove     Sep 6, 2010 in Politics
France already has the most lavish of all retirement systems, but tomorrow will see public sector workers on strike to protest government plans to reform retirement age and payments in the light of the system’s unsustainable debt.
The strikes will mainly hit public transport, education and other areas of the public sector, in which union membership is the most prevalent. They coincide with the parliamentary debate on legislation designed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and increase contributions.
It hardly seems necessary any more to explain the negative upcoming effects of the baby-boom years on public retirement benefit schemes in western countries. Everyone knows that the unprecedented numbers of people who will retire in greater and greater numbers will impose a massive burden on Social Security systems which are almost universally in heavy debt, and that that debt has been exacerbated by the recent financial crisis.
Everyone also knows that if things don’t change these systems – including the French system – will go from debt to bust. Within ten years in the case of France.
Everyone knows, that is, except French trade unions, which seem to be hell bent on keeping their members’ privileges despite the fact that by doing so they are incontestably, selfishly and shamelessly trying to push off their debt onto the shoulders of a generation which has just been born.
Almost all European countries have already reformed their retirement arrangements and most have opted for a mix of increased contributions and raising the retirement age, so how do the government’s plans compare to those in other countries?
The fact is that even after the reforms have been implemented France will enjoy the lowest retirement age and length of contributions as well as, incidentally, the lowest working week in the world – 35 hours. They will also enjoy more years of retirement than people anywhere else too, because of France’s average life expectancy, which is higher than elsewhere. The French enjoyed an average of 24.5 years of retirement in 2007 – the last year for available figures – compared to 19.8 in Europe as a whole and an extreme low of 14 in Japan.
At the same time, Greece, to which IMF pressure has been applied, is implementing 5 more years of contributions and the retirement age will hit 63 by 2015. Even tougher shock treatment is being applied in Germany and Spain, where retirement ages will be progressively rolled back to 67.
The average in Italy will go up to 63 and in Sweden to 65 (although the age is consensual in Sweden, where, in simple terms, there is no fixed retirement age and people contribute for as little or long as they wish for a corresponding amount of pension payment.)
Other ways of finding the money needed include the progressive alignment of women’s retirement ages to those of men, as is the case for Portugal, Italy and Great Britain. The age of retirement is set to go up to 68 by 2045 because of rising life expectancy.
So France’s ambitions – 60 with a relatively reduced contribution increase – are extremely modest in comparison to what is happening elsewhere, but it is also here that the protests against reform are the most virulent.
It is extraordinary how millions of people are regularly inconvenienced by trade union strikes in a country with one of the lowest (8-9%) union membership rates in Europe.
Millions of people will lose money tomorrow because they can’t get to work, or back, parents cannot work because their children’s teachers are on strike – teachers who refuse point blank moreover to provide mandatory daycare and creche facilities for children so their parents can work and avoid losing pay – many millions of Euros will be lost to the economy, thus weakening the country’s competitiveness and jobs in a dog-eat-dog world which has seen the French economy slip further and further behind that of Germany.
What are the unions suggesting instead of the government’s plan? They – who pay less and stop work earlier than anyone else - suggest that management and bosses should contribute more so that the system remains almost untouched. Fine, except that French bosses already contribute proportionally more to the highest pensions in the world than almost any other bosses. Where is the realism in that ludicrous suggestion? Not only that, but the money we’re talking about here is a drop in the ocean compared to the needs.
And who would benefit from this strike achieving its aims? No-one. No-one that is except those selfish corporatist groups of privileged workers who enjoy the best working conditions in the world and whose reformed pension arrangements in order to help keep the system afloat would still be comparatively deluxe compared not only to those of people in other countries but also to the majority of their fellow countrymen.
Is this what French trade unions call ‘social justice for all’? Well I wouldn’t dream of using that expression to describe people who couldn’t even give a damn about the future well-being and security of their own children, never mind that of the rest of us.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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