News Home » Europe » ‘I can’t take any more’: Working-class French lament Macron’s push to raise retirement age

‘I can’t take any more’: Working-class French lament Macron’s push to raise retirement age

Joseph Philips 32 Jan 10


The French government presented its proposed pension reforms on Tuesday – measures President Emmanuel Macron has long argued are necessary to make the system affordable over the long term, an argument critics vociferously contest. FRANCE 24 spoke to several workers who do arduous jobs – and who are up in arms about the plans to take away the cherished right to retire at 62.

The centrepiece of Macron's proposed pension overhaul, which Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne unveiled on Tuesday, involves raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, and increasing the total number of years people must work to qualify for a full pension.

Macron became the first French president in a generation to lose a National Assembly majority in last year’s parliamentary elections. That means he will either have to get a few dozen conservative MPs to cross the aisle or resort to Article 49.3 – the Fifth Republic’s most contentious constitutional tool, which would allow him to bypass parliament altogether, even if it would mean a big loss of face.   

The president had to temporarily shelve pensions reform when Covid struck during his first term. France saw its biggest strikes in decades, bringing Paris to a halt for much of the winter of 2019-20. Back then, the moderate CFDT trade union – France’s biggest – sat the strikes out. This time, it has joined other unions in calling for nationwide strike action on January 19.  

A 'byzantine' pension system?

Critics often cast France's existing pension system as “byzantine” or “convoluted”, because it consists of 42 different state-supported schemes. According to report by the Pensions Advisory Council (Conseil d’orientation des retraites), “between 2023 and 2027, the pension system’s finances will deteriorate significantly”, reaching a deficit of between 0.3 and 0.4 percent of GDP (or just over €10 billion a year) until 2032.

The entire pensions system cost the government 14 percent of GDP in 2021, more than most other industrialised nations. However, others argue that the debt the current system is likely to create does not amount to much – and that, in any case, Macron’s government can find other ways of making up the shortfall, not least by reversing planned business tax cuts.

FRANCE 24 spoke to various workers aged from 22 to 60 about why they are opposed to the reform. The predominant thread running through these interviews was the simple fact that many jobs are hard. And linked to that: the belief that France’s relatively generous pension system should be cherished as apt compensation for physically and emotionally draining work.

Dominique, 59, retail supervisor: 'I’ve never gone on strike in my life – but this time, if they ask me, I will'

“It’s been 30 years I’ve been working in retail. I’ve already had surgery on both shoulders to deal with tendonitis caused by all the repetitive movements and the heavy loads I carry throughout the day. In total, I’ve got to carry about 600 kilos of goods every day. I’ve also had to get prosthetic thumbs on both hands: I’ve lost my joints from ripping and tearing boxes to put on shelves. So if I end up being told I’ll have to delay my retirement – whether it’s by a few months or a year – I won’t be able to accept it.

“This work only gets harder as you get older. I find it a lot more difficult than I did twenty years ago to carry loads; even my knees are starting to give way now.    

“We’ve got a lot of young people in this country looking for work; and I think they should be trained to fill the jobs of people retiring at 62. I’ve never gone on a protest or gone on strike in my life – but this time, if they ask me, I will. Because we’re coming up against something really unpalatable. If you ask too much of people, it just becomes unbearable for them, either physically or psychologically.”

Jean, 29, bricklayer: 'A lot of my colleagues end up with cancer at 60'  

“Working as a bricklayer, it’s already a bit of a tall order getting to 60 in good health, even if you have a reduced workload. All day long, you’re coming up against oil, grease, cement, dust, everything there is in the building industry. You’re hammering all the time; it’s very hard on your body. A lot of my colleagues end up with cancer at 60. And even if you don’t get cancer, from the age of 50 onwards, you get bad knees, a bad back, carpal tunnel, damaged ligaments – you name it.

The Debate

The Debate © France 24

“A few colleagues of mine look broken physically – they walk around like ducks. They need constant help; they can’t walk normally anymore; they’re screwed. So if you have to carry on till you’re 64 … When I see people in that state, I know I’m not going to carry on bricklaying. I’m going to retrain – then I’ll be renovating flats to rent them out. That’s the only way I can avoid working myself to death. I’ve only been a bricklayer for four years and I can already see it’s not going to be sustainable. My back’s already showing bad signs, even though I’m not yet 30.”  

Joanna, 45, psychiatric nurse: 'You shouldn’t waste all your life earning a living'  

“I’m not going to just wait for my retirement; it’d be impossible for me to carry on as a nurse for another two decades or so. When I started out, you could stop working at 55 if you had three children, or at 57 if you didn’t, but that all changed a long time ago.  

“It’s hard, being a psychiatric nurse. It puts a big burden on you mentally. You’re affected by all the unhappiness in the world; you have to absorb such hard stories when you talk to people. I had a burnout last year. I’ve got four children. I don’t want to throw all of my life into work anymore. My granddad used to say to me: ‘You shouldn’t waste all your life earning a living.'"  

Sofiane (not his real name), 49, Amazon worker: 'I won’t be able to keep going' 

“My colleagues and I were talking about the reforms this morning. Everybody’s disgusted. It depresses me. I’m 46 years old and I already find it hard – so if I’ve got another 20 years to go … 

“I get up at half past three. I load and unload parcels for Amazon. Every day I handle between 10 and 15 crates of packages. Each weighs 130 kilos. It’s very physical work – and you have to do it quickly. So it’s stressful. 

“Every day after I finish, I can hardly walk; my back hurts, my joints hurt, my ankles hurt. So working like this until I’m over 60 seems flat-out impossible for me. I won’t be able to keep going. I’ll have to find a more suitable job. This reform is nonsense.” 

Bénédicte, 60, assistant for disabled children at a nursery: 'I’ve given all I can give' 

“I was a nursery school teacher for 25 years, and for the last five years I’ve been a carer for disabled children. I’ve had a chaotic career, with three children, a divorce … I already know that I’ll have a small pension, like many single women. For the moment, I’ll have to work until I’m 64, and I don’t know exactly what to expect if the reform goes through. But I’ve decided not to renew my contract. I’d rather be unemployed, live on what’s left of my savings or start training until I retire, because I can’t take any more. 

“I don’t want to work with children anymore. I’m looking after a very difficult little boy, who went through hell at the age of just 4 and a half. I can’t stand running after him, arguing with him, taking him back to where he’s supposed to be. It’s a job that wears you out. I want to stop before I get too worn out. I think I’ve done my fair share of work. I’ve given all that I could give. Now I’m a granny; I’ve got three granddaughters and I want to look after them.” 

Balthazar, 22, restaurant runner: 'I don’t know if I’ll still be alive when I’m 60' 

“Retirement is a very foggy idea in my mind. It’s hard for me to think that far ahead, especially seeing as I don’t want to work in the restaurant business all my life. It’s so physical in any case; I couldn’t do this job until I was 64.  

“I don’t know if I’ll still be alive when I’m 60, if there’ll be all kinds of other reforms in the meantime, what state the planet will be in with climate change. So I don’t feel any immediate sense of concern. But I am absolutely against the reforms. The aim is to save money, to make the country produce more, to lower companies’ contributions and make people work longer. It’s the poor who are going to be affected, especially since a quarter of the poorest men are already dead by the age of 62 – which is of course scandalous.” 

This article was translated from the original in French.