France's unions have called for another round of strikes and rallies on Tuesday to protest President Macron's pension reform. While the government is adamant the minimum retirement age must rise from 62 to 64 in line with an ageing population, opponents say it's unfair and other solutions must be found to keep the pension kitty in the black.
"64-year-old careworkers looking after 60-year-old residents in care homes? Thanks Macron” reads one of the striking placards on the 19 January rally in Paris.
"Soon you won’t be able to tell the difference between residents and careworkers," its owner Sylvie Pécard says with a touch of irony.
Pécard, 59, a nurse in the oncology department of St Louis hospital in Paris, has been working nights since 1994.
When she started out in nursing you could retire at 57, even if you didn't get a full pension, she explains. Then it went up to 62 and now it's set to be 64.
She believes this to be unfair in principle and near-impossible in practice.
"What's strange is that our job is no longer classified as 'physically difficult', even though we still work nights and we still look after difficult patients," she says.
"We pick them up when they fall, we carry 3L bags of fluid. We push beds around."
She says many of her colleagues have had knee replacements by the age of 57.
"They're ill and exhausted. Night work is especially exhausting. Contrary to what people think, we don't rest, we carry on caring for patients.
"How can we be expected to go through to 64?"
What's more, she doubts she'll qualify for a full pension since like many women she "took a break to raise kids", underlining that "even if there are more male nurses nowadays, nursing remains a largely female profession".
Listen to a report on the protests in the Spotlight on France podcastSpotlight on France, episode 88 © RFI
'Not sure we'll be standing up straight'
Childcare is also a feminised profession.
Anne-Emmanuelle Rigaudière, a 55-year-old nursery nurse in Paris, is marching for the first time against raising the retirement age and was prepared to loose a day's pay.
She feels she'd be unfit to look after babies and toddlers at the age of 64.
"This is the first time I’ve gone on strike, but it seemed important. We work with young children and I can’t imagine handling babies until 64, maybe 67.
"I’m not sure we’ll even be standing up straight," she says.
She is not convinced by the government's argument that people must work longer to stop the country's pension fund falling €20 bn in the red by 2030.
“Maybe we can find the money elsewhere,” she retorts. “When it's necessary, we do that.”
The record profits of some of France's biggest companies in 2021, particularly in the energy sector, has contributed to a sense of injustice and led to calls for an increase in company taxation.
However, this would amount to a radical overhaul of France's current redistributive pension system.
'It's not just about me'
Opposition to the proposed increase in retirement age is not confined to public sector workers.
Bookseller Sophie Fornairon has come along with her female colleagues to protest for the first time since the Charlie Hebdo rally in January 2015.
The reform, she says, "is not fair, not financially needed at the moment, and nobody wants it, in this format".
France struggles to defuse claims that pension reform will penalise women
She enjoys her job but insists this is not about her own situation.
"As a bookseller I’m happy with my job. But I’m lucky to be happy," she says.
"The problem is for unhappy people. It’s for young ladies and it’s for young people starting working very early during their lives. What will be their future?
- French youth hold rallies in Paris against government pension reform
Her 27-year-old colleague Bulle Prévost is indeed concerned about hers.
"I started working at 24. If we calculated it right, I will be working until 67," she says. "And carrying heavy books all day it won’t be OK when I’m 63, 65 and 67."
Another way of working is possible
The government likes to compare France to its EU neighbours to show how normal it would be to keep people working longer. In Germany the legal minimum age is 65, in the UK 66, in Italy 67.
"Comparison n'est pas raison," chimes in Fornairon referring to a French saying meaning a comparison doesn't prove something is right.
"It’s not because in other countries they have to work all their lives that it's right. It’s not what we want. And it’s not necessary. Another way of life and way of working is possible.
"So German booksellers, British booksellers follow us!"
Get round the table
Fornairon admits funding pensions is an issue, but "there is not only one solution" and putting up the retirement age doesn't make sense long-term.
"The French population is getting older and older. Does that mean that in 10 years we will have to move from 67 to 70 and 10 years later to 80? It’s a nonsense."
France has to come up with "other ways of thinking how to pay our pensions in the future".
One option would be getting retirees to contribute more by effectively lowering their pensions.
The government has ruled this outright.
"Our objective is to finance this reform through work, not to cut retirees' purchasing power, whoever they are, whatever their income," said Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt on 15 January.
While there's a real need to get round the table and talk, Fornairon conisders there's been "no discussion, no negotiation and that's personally why I'm here on the street".
The government insists it will not budge on the 64 minimum age and the requirement for 43 years of contributions. But Dussopt say he is open to improvements to the rest of the draft proposal during parliamentary discussions beginning early February.