Is Sarkozy’s Plan to Raise France’s Retirement Age Fair?

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French Fighting for the Right to Retire Relatively Young (AP)

The French work force was doing what it does as well as anyone yesterday—going out on strike. Somewhere between one and three million workers (the police and the big union, CGT, disputed the totals) hit the streets to protest the plan by the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy to increase France’s retirement age by two years. To age 62.  I wish I could retire that young, some of you are saying. I wish I had a job, others are muttering. Still others ask: What’s a pension?

The push for pension reform by Sarkozy has been simmering all summer. The logic is inescapable: France can’t meet the future costs of the coming wave of retirees because there aren’t enough active workers behind them to pay for it. And with life expectancy expanding, the prospect of paying pensioners for 20 or 30 or 40 years gets ever more daunting. It’s a similar position that many old-economy corporations have faced in the U.S. and one that Social Security faces in the future.

The French twist, of course, is that the current age, 60,  at which one is allowed to collect his retraite is low by American standards.  We in fact seem to be headed in the other direction.  The American tradition of 65-and-out is being ignored by a lot of older employees because they want to continue working— or they have to, given the shape of their 401ks.

French workers, on the other hand, have no intention of laboring well into their golden years. They are striking because they believe—as did furious Greek workers earlier this year—that they held up their end of the bargain. In their view they have paid high taxes in return for a generous welfare state and a pension fat enough to retire at 60. Why on earth would you want to give any of that up? So they fight on, knowing that the math isn’t going their way. “La réforme, elle sera votée et la réforme, elle sera appliquée,” said Labor Minister Eric Woerth. Short translation: this is a done deal.