“We will be the biggest losers of the French pension reform”
Written in collaboration with Sofia Alvarez Jurado and Giada Santana Eusebio
Women protesting at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
On Saturday the 11th of March, protesters gathered in Paris’ Place de la République for the 7th day of nation-wide mobilization against France’s upcoming pension reform. Amidst the floats and food-trucks, Eleonore, a single mom of 48, hurries to join the procession with her partner and two young kids, who follow along on scooters. They’re holding a hand-made sign which reads, in all caps black and red text: “No to retirement at 64. We want to retire at 60.”
Eleonore, who is currently employed in a Parisian museum, considers President Macron’s pension reform to be “unjust and illegal.” All her life she has worked part-time, initially because she couldn’t reconcile her artistic residence with a full-time job, and later because she had to raise her kids alone. “Now I really want my full retirement,” she says, but she fears that prospect may never materialize.
Eleonore and her family at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
Eleonore isn’t alone in her concern about the incoming changes to France’s pension system, two major aspects of which are likely to disproportionately affect women.
First, the draft law aims to gradually raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by the end of the decade. Because many women–around 80%–work part-time or interrupt their careers to have children, they might have no choice but to wait until age 67 to retire, as the law prescribes for those who fail to accumulate 43 years of contributions.
Second, the reform includes changes to the way that pensions are calculated. Currently, pensions are based on a worker’s highest 25 years of earnings. The new system, on the other hand, will calculate pensions based on a worker’s entire career, which could, again, disadvantage all those women who have non-consecutive careers.
According to the projections presented by the government alongside the law proposal, for the generation of French citizens born in 1966, the reform will lead to an increase in the average retirement of 7 months for women, compared to the 5 months for men. For those born in 1972, it will be 9 months for women, compared to 5 months for men. And for the 1980 generation, the lengthening is twice as great for women (8 months versus 4 months).
Women protesting at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
The French government has argued that the pension reform is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the pension system, in a national context in which life expectancy has increased and birth rates have declined. Insisting that the changes won’t disproportionately affect women, they are offering partial recognition of parental and family leave. However, many feminist associations, like Nous Toutes, have been very vocal in their opposition of the reform.
Maelis Couroussé, the 26 year-old and co-president of Nous Toutes in Nantes, believes the change in the pension calculation system would have a significant impact on French women’s decision to have children. “Childbirth and everything that follows, the mental burden of it all, would become significant obstacles for women if this reform ends up happening.”
According to a report published on November 26th by the French Social Protection Institute (SPI), while the reform project is being presented by the Macron government as being beneficial to non-consecutive careers, the new system would in fact be unfavorable to mothers of one and two children.
Leila, a life-long leftist militant of 56, would be one of those similarly impacted. “My career was interrupted, I had to stop for a while to take care of my children. Now I did a simulation and with the pension reform I would have to work until the age of 67.”
Children holding flags at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, women are already more likely to experience poverty when it comes to post-retirement life. Nearly a third of elderly women in France are at risk of poverty, compared to just 18% of elderly men. They earn on average 13.4% less, and are more likely to work low-wage jobs. Both the gender pay gap and the feminization of certain low-earning occupations, feed into large disparities when it comes to retirement. In 2020, French women’s pensions amounted, on average, to 40% less than those of their male counterparts, according to DREES. The new pension reform could further exacerbate this inequality, making it even harder for women to retire comfortably.
On International Women’s Day, the 8th of March, the pension reform bill was approved by the Senate. It is now on its way to the National Assembly for an additional round of discussions, before it is put to a final vote.
Catherine, who is already retired, also joined the demonstration on Saturday to show her support to the younger generations. “I find it outrageous that the most precarious people are still being asked to foot the bill for the rest.” When asked specifically about how this would affect the female population, she didn’t hesitate: “Women are the biggest losers of the French pension reform.”
Catherine holding a flag at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
Historically, French workers have considered early retirement age as a point of national pride. One that required meaningful national mobilization to achieve. “I think that prolonging work seems to most an affront to their welfare rights,” said Marion Fontaine, a historian who specializes in the history of French labor movements.
“The battle for time to live,” as Francois Mitterand called it, was one of the leading promises of the first left-wing president of the Fifth Republic during the 1981 electoral campaign. His pension reform, which lowered the retirement age in France to 60, eventually came into force in 1982. According to Fontaine, this event was inscribed in history books as a great marker of social progress. Conversely, the latest pension reform is perceived as a step backwards for workers’ social rights.
Woman protesting at Republique. Photograph: Claudia Colliva.
“Even if abroad the French are seen as grouchy, this is how our system works,” says Maelis Couroussé. “The people take to the streets to make demands and, at some point, the State gives in. We hope, and cross our fingers.” Natalie, another protester that would have to work an extra year with this new reform, maintains more conviction in the mobilization than mere hope: “We won’t let this happen, if more protests are called, we will be here.”
With more demonstrations expected throughout this week, there are no signs that protesters will back down.