The French population is reacting to the planned increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64 with protests. In many other European countries, the retirement age is already significantly higher. How do you explain the long retirement period in France?

Once again, the French population is demonstrating against the government’s planned pension reform, which is intended to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne submitted a corresponding proposal on January 10, which is now being debated in Parliament.

The reform is considered extremely controversial in France: a majority of 68% rejects the project. Seen from the perspective of other European countries, the measure seems surprisingly moderate. But what explains the low retirement age in France?

A large proportion of Europeans are well past the age of 62 when the state pays out their pension for the first time. Anyone wishing to receive an old-age pension in Great Britain must have reached the age of 66. Germany has a retirement age of 67. The French system, on the other hand, distinguishes between two age limits: the statutory retirement age of 62, which grants a pension without deductions if all compulsory contributions have been paid, and retirement at 67, which gives the full pension regardless of contributions pays off As part of the intended reform, the number of contribution years required would now increase from 41 to 43.

The complex legislation of individual countries on credits and exemptions has led to early retirement for most Europeans. The average age for retirement for a British man is 63.7 and for a woman at 63.2. Germany has 63.1 years for men and 63.2 for women.

The average age in France is even lower: men retire here at 60.4 years and women at 60.9 years. Because average life expectancy is high, France has the second longest retirement age for men (after Luxembourg) and the third longest for women in the OECD.

This puts considerable pressure on the French system. The pensions are funded by compulsory in-work payroll taxes for those who are already retired. While according to this principle in 2000 there were still 2.1 employed persons for every pensioner in France, today it is just 1.7. It is estimated that this number will drop to 1.3 by 2070.

The reasons for the low retirement age in France lie in its historical and political roots. The oldest pension system in the country came into effect in 1673 for the Navy of the Ancien Régime. To this day, certain professional groups, such as the dancers of the Paris State Opera or employees of the railways, enjoy early retirement entitlements on the basis of historical special regulations.

For example, employees of the state railway SNCF can retire at the age of 52-55. The modern pension regulations were introduced in 1945 with the emergence of the French welfare state. At that time, an entry age of 65 years was considered a prerequisite for full pension. Only when François Mitterrand came to power as a socialist president in 1981 with a promise to create more workers’ rights did the retirement age in France drop to 60 years.

Since then, any attempt to oblige the French to work longer hours has sparked violent protests. Like the 35-hour week, the lowering of the retirement age in France has become part of the national myth: celebrating progress towards a better society, increasingly freed from the burden of work.

Jacques Chirac’s failed attempt to raise the retirement age in 1995 triggered a gigantic wave of nationwide strikes. There was also massive resistance in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy successfully raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. The pension from 64 that President Emmanuel Macron is now aiming for may seem modest on paper – but it is as symbolic as it is politically risky.

This text first appeared in The Economist under the title “Why is the French pension age so low?” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

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