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What France's revolt over raising the retirement age says about the attitude to work

A protester participates in a demonstration in Marseille on March 18 after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote.
Clement Mahoudeau
/
AFP via Getty Images
A protester participates in a demonstration in Marseille on March 18 after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote.

France has revolted against President Emmanuel Macron's move to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The protests offer some insight into how the French view work and life.

Who is he? The President of France — aka public enemy #1 for French workers across the country.

  • Thousands have marched in the streets in recent weeks against the move, while public transport workers, teachers and garbage collectors have all striked en masse to show their disapproval.
  • It comes alongside a worldwide trend of workers feeling unsatisfied with their labor conditions, says Marc Loriol, a sociologist and the research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research. 
  • A protestor holds a sign reading "Who sow misery, harvest anger" during a demonstration in Nantes on March 18.
    Loic Venance / AFP via Getty Images
    /
    AFP via Getty Images
    A protestor holds a sign reading "Who sow misery, harvest anger" during a demonstration in Nantes on March 18.

    What's the big deal? Raising the retirement age has been widely unpopular since the measure was put forward in January.

  • Then, last Thursday, when it became apparent it would not pass through France's parliament, Macron used a constitutional power to force through the change without a vote.
  • The fierce opposition to the idea is in part thanks to France's work culture; one that places a heavy emphasis on quality of life, work-life balance, and a comfortable retirement. Reporter Lisa Bryant told Morning Edition: "The French are fiercely protective of their universal health care and generous pensions. And it's a choice society has made: Work hard, pay high taxes, but also retire at a relatively young age with a high standard of living."
  • France's current retirement age of 62 is low compared to other European countries. Macron has long talked about raising it because of the country's demographic changes: There are more and more older people and comparatively fewer workers to fund the government pension.
  • Loriol told NPR how the French attitude towards work had also changed over time: "Work is very important for French people, but since about 20 or 30 years ago, a lot of jobs have become precarious. [Before], people were hired in an enterprise and if the job was good, they climbed the ladder, and they could obtain a higher position in the company. Now, it's more and more difficult because people are not hiring [employees] for life. It's something that has changed in France particularly, because that was tradition before. So [now], people say, 'I can't think my work is my only goal in my life.'"

  • Have work and jobs on your mind? Listen to the Consider This episode on how to prepare a personal recession toolkit.


    Trash has been piling up the street amid a bin collectors' strike against the pension changes.
    Lou Benoist / AFP via Getty Images
    /
    AFP via Getty Images
    Trash has been piling up the street amid a bin collectors' strike against the pension changes.

    What are people saying?

    Loriol on how French people find meaning in their work:

    When they think that they do not have enough time, have enough means to do a good job, to produce good quality work, good products and good service, they find it is not a good job, because they can't recognize this kind of job. 

    Since about 30 years ago, the pace of work has been getting higher and higher in a lot of jobs, even for blue collar and white collar workers.

    Once [people] work from home [because of the pandemic], they think about the meaning of their jobs, and they think that their job is not good enough.

    Macron, in February, according to the Associated Press.

    People know that yes, on average, you have to work a little longer, all of them, because otherwise we won't be able to finance our pensions properly.

    Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist leader and founder of the France Unbowed party, according to The New York Times:

    Since the process of parliamentary censorship has not worked, it is time to move on to popular censorship.

    A woman poses by a burning barricade during a demonstration in Nantes on March 18.
    LOIC VENANCE / AFP via Getty Images
    /
    AFP via Getty Images
    A woman poses by a burning barricade during a demonstration in Nantes on March 18.

    So, what now?

  • On Monday afternoon, a no confidence motion against Macron's government was put forward in the National Assembly. If passed, it would have undone the move. It was narrowly rejected, meaning that the law will pass.
  • Macron's popularity has been rapidly dropping in the last two months, and the manner in which the new retirement age was pushed through was deemed "unjustified" by roughly 80% of the population, according to an IFOP poll cited by CNN.
  • Protesters, along with political opponents, have vowed to keep fighting the changes and exploring avenues to have it wound back.
  • Learn more:

  • Older Americans are increasingly unwilling — or unable — to retire
  • America, we have a problem. People aren't feeling engaged with their work
  • The economics behind 'quiet quitting' — and what we should call it instead
  • Linah Mohammad contributed to this report. contributed to this story

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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