‘Work’ means something different in France than in the US

As a native of France who has lived in America for many years, I never fail to be shocked at the sight of older workers packing groceries at the supermarket. It suggests to me a deplorable lack of social supports that could allow aged people to enjoy a dignified retirement.

While it’s true that some people choose to work past retirement, most of us in this country, at some point or the other, have seen elderly people hard at work in occupations that people many years younger would find taxing.

And yet, many Americans somehow seem to be puzzled by the recent protests over retirement benefits that are roiling the country of my birth.

For the past three months, a spasm of demonstrations has gripped France over moves by the government to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. In recent days, French indignation led to a no-confidence vote that President Emmanuel Macron only narrowly survived. A new round of mass protests called by organized labor took place on Thursday — the ninth day of strikes since the bill was introduced in January.

Schools are closed because teachers are on strike. Transportation, including France’s usually reliable train service, is suddenly erratic because of the work stoppages. On top of all this, Parisians have seen their city’s streets strewn with tons of trash, after sanitation workers launched a labor action in solidarity.

I return to France for several weeks each year, but have lived in the United States some 30 years and know both countries well. One thing that seems clear to me is that the kind of upheaval playing out in the country of my birth would be almost unthinkable in America. Americans seem not to be able to understand the source of the boiling national rage felt by the French over the planned increase in the retirement age.

The closest analogy in the United States to anything like what my compatriots are experiencing would be the decision four decades ago to raise the age at which Social Security benefits are doled out.

And that’s exactly what happened: The US government announced in 1983 that it would gradually raise the age for collecting full Social Security retirement benefits from 65 to 67 over a 22-year period, beginning in 2000. Of course, older Americans care deeply about Social Security — and often cast their votes accordingly. Still, it’s hard to imagine such a change going over quite so easily in France.

For the most part, the demonstrations in France haven’t awakened Americans’ sense of empathy or solidarity. Instead, it has elicited expressions of sheer befuddlement. What on earth, my friends and acquaintances here ask, do the French have to complain about?

Life in France is not perfect. But French citizens have a generous health care system, which means workers pay next-to-nothing out of pocket for medical care. University education is nearly free. Unemployment benefits allow laid-off workers to sustain a reasonable quality of life while they look for their next jobs.

Yes, French workers have all of that. It is, in short, part of their birthright as citizens of France.

After World War II, both the retirement system and the National Health care system were introduced in France, and though there have been limitations over the last twenty years, social benefits still make it among the most envied countries in Europe in terms of its social programs.

If Americans are baffled by the French willingness to fight to hold onto these hard-won benefits, it is in part because the two countries have very different ideas about what it means to be a worker. In the United States, work is an identity. You are what you do.

For those of us raised in French culture, work refers to a finite period of life lasting roughly 40 years. And when that work is done, you are still young enough and fit enough to enjoy the best of what life has to offer. It’s the norm that retirement years — or decades actually — are spent traveling, caring for grandchildren or picking up new hobbies.

It’s part of our social compact: The French work hard during their most productive years during which time they pay what most Americans would consider usuriously high taxes. But then comes the much anticipated “Troisieme Age” — the “third age”. It’s a concept French people grow up with and cling to fervently for their entire lives.

The “first age” is childhood. During life’s “second age”, many of us are saddled with responsibilities of work and raising children. The third age however promises a good, healthy retirement free from want and worry — the kind of retirement many in the United States cannot even dream of. It is no wonder that people are willing to take to the streets to protect it.

The ongoing protests are also seen as a pushback against Macron’s imperious governing style. Years ago, he earned the nickname “Jupiter” — after the king of the Roman gods — as he was derided by some for his highhanded approach to governing — imposing his will, in the eyes of his critics, as if he were a sovereign rather than elected.

Macron says retirement reform is necessary because the system is near collapse. There’s some disagreement about that, however. The budget appears to be balanced for the next dozen years, although it’s true that falling birth rates and increasing longevity pose a problem that will have to be addressed.

Still, there are less draconian ways to fix problems posed by a future retirement fund shortfall. For starters, Macron might reverse his move to abolish the wealth tax. He might also reconsider corporate tax breaks that have benefited big business handsomely.

His administration’s use last week of a constitutional maneuver to bypass a vote in the National Assembly and raise the retirement age is an example of his imperial style. It’s an approach to governing that Macron has used multiple times, including when he passed a budget late last year. And as the protests wear on, there’s been another sign of government heavy-handedness: Macron now has resorted to the “requisition” of some striking workers — in short requiring them to return to their places of employment or risk losing their jobs.

Such moves are, in my view, an admission of political impotence rather than strength. The president has failed to see politics as the art of persuasion and is instead ruling by fiat. The brutal police crackdown on demonstrators protesting pension reforms led to hundreds of arrests in recent days, another sign that he lacks political deftness. The unions meanwhile show no sign of backing down, and are continuing to organize massive protests urging workers to stand firm and remain off the job.

So what’s next? Surely the French will continue to take to the streets, something they always do with great gusto. Beyond this, it’s hard to say how this upheaval ends.

There’s no question that the French are slow to embrace change. I am and will always remain staunchly French, although after many years in the US, I can see that my compatriots need to show greater flexibility. They hold on too long to obsolete aspects of their cherished way of life. It’s time for the French to abandon their “c’est tout ou rien” (“all or nothing”) approach as we negotiate what French society will look like in the future.

But then I read about the latest moves to raise the US retirement age to 70, and think that my protesting countrymen have a thing or two that they can teach workers in America when it comes to protecting the sanctity of their golden years.

Catherine Poisson is an associate professor of Romance Languages at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Her research has focused on literature and culture of France from the 19th century to the present. The views expressed in this article are her own.

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