Last month, France hosted its Coupe de France, a soccer match between French teams, and it is customary for the president to make an appearance. But this year, President Emmanuel Macron’s appearance was subdued due to concerns that he would be booed in response to recent pension reforms.
I support public demonstrations and liberté de parole. But, as an American, and a conservative no less, I was baffled that the French were so upset over working for two extra years. But watching the news and speaking with French friends and family changed my perspective.
Understanding the ire of the French over pension reforms calls for a brief overview of their pension system. France’s retirement system, created in 1945, has profession-based categories, each with its retirement ages and pension amounts. For example, dentists pay into the dentists’ pension, and ballet dancers pay into the ballet dancers’ pension. Government officials set retirement ages and amounts, and the system is taxpayer funded. Like America’s social security, retirement is funded by tax revenue from those currently working.
France needs fiscal reform to support its current social system, an idea with which many French agree. However, the two questions I hear the most from Americans are, “Why can’t the French save for retirement?” and “Why are they so lazy they won’t work for two more years?”
The lack of private retirement accounts held by the French is not irresponsibility, rather, it is by design. The French pay high taxes and social security charges (mandatory payments for daycare, retirement, and healthcare), and the system, by taxing citizens at high rates, coupled with the cultural expectation that the government provides for one’s retirement, encourages the French to depend on the government for retirement.
In France, a government pension covers about 74% of one’s pre-retirement income, whereas Social Security in America replaces 40%. Moreover, 15% of French households hold a private retirement investment compared to 34.6% of Americans with a 401k-style account.
The anger is about perceptions that Macron used the heavy hand of government against France’s citizens, and that there is little they can do about it.
The second question of why they don’t want to work is insulting and misunderstands why the French are angry. Granted, the French have more vacation days, approximately 6-10 weeks per year, than the average American’s 11 days (a low hurdle to clear), but they are not unwilling to work.
The BBC reports that the average salaried French office worker works from about 8-9:30 a.m. until 6:30-7 p.m., and many blue-collar workers work more than 35 hours per week. According to Le Monde, only about one-third of French people supported the pension reforms. The fury over pension reforms stems from the fact the French government has spent money on projects that some French don’t feel benefit them, including billions for the war in Ukraine, COVID relief, and generous benefits for illegal immigrants. The French value work, but they, like Americans, don’t appreciate being told there is no money for them when elected officials carelessly spend their taxes.
One former colleague in the United States made a particularly ham-fisted remark that Macron “showed leadership.” This could not be further from the truth. Macron alienated the right and the left and perhaps created the opportunity for the next president to be right-wing or socialist.
When French President Emmanuel Macron could not get support from the right and the left, he ram-rodded the pension reforms through article 49-3, a constitutional provision that allows a bill to become law without a vote. Imagine the United States president using an executive order to change the social security system.
I would rather see Macron and members of parliament work together to curb spending and put France’s workers first instead of pushing through a reform that no one feels serves them.
Meanwhile, I suggest that my fellow Americans reserve judgment of the French protests. Instead, focus on the debt ceiling and curbing spending, lest America follow France’s lead.
Ellie Krasne-Cohen is a visiting fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.