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A More Nuanced View of the French Protests October 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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We have been hearing a lot in the press about the strikes, protests, and demonstrations that have brought France to a standstill. They are expressing opposition to a government proposal to raise the age for a minimum pension from 60 to 62. Typical of the mainstream press is the following headline which appeared on the San Diego Union Tribune’s website:

The French are striking over what? Retiring at 62?

What’s French for “huh?” France is on strike, the population outraged by a proposed pension reform that would raise the retirement age. From — zut alors! — 60 to 62.

The attitude of the U.S. media has been to poke fun at those silly French who hate to work and want to retire when they’re 60 and sip Calvados on the public dime.

But, of course, as usual the mainstream press is very likely misleading the public (especially the odious right-wing UT).

Here is an alternative perspective from Bob Vallier:

Currently, a worker has to contribute to social security—which is not at all the same as American social security, in that it also includes universal health coverage, unemployment insurance, and a whole host of other social benefits that constitute the social safety net for all citizens—for 40.5 years; under Sarkozy’s reform, a year would be added on to the contribution (and again, several members of the left agree that this may be necessary, and in itself is not so bad).   If someone starts working in a public sector job, as for example a mechanic at the SNCF, at the age of 18, then even with the reforms, the absolute earliest they could retire would be 60.  Of course, almost no one starts working at the age of 18 at such jobs, because (a) the unemployment rate among 18-to-26 year olds is the highest at 38%, and (b) such jobs require qualifications that you can get only after at least two years of training and apprenticeship.  So a minimum retirement age at 62 is mathematically realistic and fiscally responsible, and everyone knows it.   That’s not really the problem.  The problem is that once you reach the minimum retirement age, you could retire only if you’ve been paying into social security for 41.5 years, an even then, you could retire only on a partial pension.   You are  currently not entitled to a full pension until you are 65, and under the proposed reforms, this would be raised to 67, which implies that you would not start working and contributing in full until you are 25.5, which, given unemployment rates, is by no means obvious.  Any time off for disability or due to a period unemployment between jobs—i.e., when you are not earning a salary and thus not contributing to social security—would actually count against you, forcing you to work longer.  If you do all the math, it soon becomes apparent that the real age at which you would be eligible to take your retirement would be approaching 65 or 66, while the age at which you could receive a full pension is approaching 70 or 71.  So, it’s not at all a matter of adding just two years on to the minimum retirement age; in real practice, these reforms would add between 8 and 10 years onto the time you’d have to wait before you’d be eligible for retirement at full pension. […]

After describing how France’s social safety net works and the costs it imposes on employers:

In the past few years, Sarko (and Chirac before him) has tried to reform social security (and again, everyone recognizes that it needs to be reformed), and the proposed reforms (which largely failed because of strikes similar to those we see today) were all about shifting the costs of social security away from employers and to employees, i.e., increasing the rate of employee contributions.   Sarko and company argue that such reforms would stimulate employment, but what such reforms would mean on a practical level is that each employee would be taking home even less in real net income.  So once again, the strikes today are not just about raising the minimum retirement age; they are about protecting a broad ranger of employee benefits, which are rightly viewed as under threat.  If these present reforms succeed, then Sarko  and his government will have a strong hand (even if his approval rating is a dismal 26%) to pursue other reforms in social security that will be deleterious to workers, and the various social agents (unions, etc.) will be viewed as weak, ineffectual, and unable to protect les acquis, the rights and entitlements they have all fought for.  And it wouldn’t be just the working-class that is affected; it would be everyone.  And that’s why there is such strong support for the present actions.

And it turns out, according to Vallier, that the unions have proposed their own pension and social security reforms that would finance the system but would be paid for by big business and hence cannot get a hearing.

I have no independent knowledge of the French situation and I am unfamiliar with the writer here so I don’t know if all of this is accurate. But it is nuanced unlike the drivel we get in the media.

I would not be a bit surprised if the U.S. press accounts are systematically misleading.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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