Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I Didn't Want to Write About the Strike but ...


when teenagers in a town a few kilometres down the road are tear-gassed by the police after throwing bricks at the windows of their schools and Molotov cocktails at cars, it becomes hard to ignore.

I didn’t want to write about the strikes because they happen so often in France that it becomes the kind of expat moan that’s on a par with complaining about the dog dirt on the street – so well known it’s a cliché and hey, if you don’t like it, don’t choose to live here, right?

But as the effects of the current strike encroach ever-further on my back yard (and as people at home keep asking me about it!), I’ve been motivated to do a little bit of research (aka ask some friends) about what it’s really about. This is what I’ve found out so far:

The main feature of the reforms is that the minimum retirement age in France will be raised from 60 to 62. To claim a full pension at that age, however, you have to start working at the minimum school leaving age, so it’s argued that for many people, the age is effectively being raised from 65 to 67.

The people who go on to further education therefore feel that they are being penalised.

The people who started work at 16 are complaining that they already work more years than anybody else and are now being told to work even longer.

These people are also cross because pensions in France are final salary-linked and, as they tend to be in lower paid jobs, as well as contributing for more years, they also get a smaller pension.

The people who get promoted to superior positions with higher salaries are cross because “final salary” used to mean the average of the final ten years but this is being extended to the last twenty years.

None of this, as you may have noticed, is actually caused by the raising of the retirement age. All of these “injustices” were present in the system already.

For comparison, in the UK, the pension age used to be 60 for women and 65 for men. It’s now being raised to 65, and potentially 66 for everybody. Previously, you had to work from the age of 21 to retirement age to get a full pension. Now you have to pay contributions for thirty years to get the basic amount, which is a sum and not a percentage, and if you pay for more years than this, you get an additional pension. (A clever way of presenting the facts that perhaps the French could learn from.) To my knowledge, no Molotov cocktails were thrown and no cars burned when these changes were introduced.

Now, I can understand why if I were approaching retirement age, had just learned that I would have to work for an extra two years and was extremely selfish, I might feel like striking against the French government’s reforms. Admittedly in a country with the best healthcare and one of the longest life expectancies in the world, these baby-boomers are quite clearly throwing the toys out of their luxury pram, but they got their thrills in ’68 and have apparently never experienced anything quite so memorable since, so at least their actions kind of make sense.

What I really don’t understand, though, is the school pupils who are destroying the fabric of society that is there to support them in the name of opposing reforms which, if successfully blocked, will allow the toy-throwers an endless life of ease, while the young pay ever-higher contributions in ever-lower paid jobs to support them. The fact that this is in any way seen as reasonable behaviour is a sign of a society that has become so blinded by its destructive way of operating that it doesn’t realise that, by opposing its government and vandalising its infrastructure, is actually destroying itself.

Anyway, having got that out of my system, I think I’ll go off and appreciate an evening of cuisine, conversation and culture in a country that is otherwise a very nice place to live in!

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