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French indignant over government plan to raise retirement age

Despite the uproar, France is not alone in considering such a step. Countries from Britain to Greece are also grappling with declining populations, ballooning government debt and longer life spans.

May 01, 2010|By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

"We needed more than 15 years to win a retirement age of 60," said Eric Aubin, a leader of the CGT, one of France's largest unions. "The French are very attached to it, because we have a situation today of very deteriorated employment and working conditions that are unbearable."

Surveys show the French to be among the unhappiest workers in Europe, despite laws that guarantee them at least five weeks of paid vacation from the moment they start their jobs. They ascribe their discontent to increasing levels of stress on the job, unreasonable demands from managers and rising workloads.

More than residents of almost any other European country, the French say they want to stop working as soon as possible. Their legal retirement age is already among the lowest in Europe. Most workers actually give up their jobs a little before turning 60.

"Even if today we live better, and our health coverage and healthcare are better, why does that mean we have to use that for working?" said Remy, the railway employee here in Amiens, a once-prosperous town in northern France that has fallen on harder times.

When he began working as a maintenance man for the SNCF railway service 30 years ago, at age 20, his contract allowed for retirement at 55. (Drivers can stop working at 50.) But changes afoot mean that he could be docked as much as 20% of his pension if he leaves the job as early as he planned, a monthly hit of about $400.

"That 20% is huge. So I don't know financially if I'll have the means to leave at 55," Remy said.

He cited a commonly heard theme here: that older workers should willingly step aside to free up jobs for young people, especially during a time of heavy unemployment.

A higher retirement age, many say, would undermine that. But some analysts disagree.

"It's not a simple zero-sum game," said Monika Queisser, who works on pension issues for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "Economies that grow and have a proper development and growth strategy create jobs for both young and old people."

Officials must also decide thorny issues of fairness: Should a factory worker who uses dangerous equipment or performs arduous physical tasks be required to continue working until the same age as someone with a cushy desk job?

Jean-Robert Creunet thinks not. At 57, he's spent his entire career in textile and furniture factories, working nightshifts for much of that time.

"Now I really feel it. Life expectancy has gone up — but in a wheelchair," he said derisively.

The fact that countries throughout Europe are facing similar issues and deciding to raise their retirement ages means nothing to him.

"They can do what they want in other places. We're in France," he said. "It's not a privilege. It's a right."

henry.chu@latimes.com

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