Geopolitics

France: Strikes And The Social Fractures Of Retirement Reform

Reforming the retirement system is necessary, but must be be done in a way and at a pace that won't tear an already divided French society further apart.

Dec. 6 protests in Paris
Dec. 6 protests in Paris
Nicolas Barré

-Analysis-

PARIS — Well, off we go, headed who knows where, for who knows how long. The actors in this national drama on retirement reform are all in place, each playing a role learned by heart. The loudest are those who don't want to budge, on either a single parameter or the system as a whole. They're playing defense, in any case. These social security "carpe diemists' have a line: Make the most of what we have today, for we don't know what tomorrow may bring.

Their reference point is an idealized past: the social pact of 1945, which created, among other things, the modern French welfare system. Three or four generations have gone by since then, but no matter. This pact is their flag. And no one touches the flag.

This disparate mass, this social kaleidoscope, is France.

On the opposite side of the issue there is another flag: that of reform — that red cloth brandished in every social movement. A reform which, though we've long moved passed it, once had a slight Hegelian aspect to it: It was supposed to include everything, in a "universal" system. And after this total reform, there would never have to be any others, it would be in some way the end of History.

Now that we've cleared up who the sides are, let's look at the real tangle: In between the posturing of the two camps, there's the disparate mass of all those who don't want to be treated like everyone else. They've got a thousand reasons for it — some good, mostly bad, egotistical, corporatist. But it turns out that this disparate mass, this social kaleidoscope, is France. Touching one piece makes all the others shift. Agreeing on the final picture, then, is a challenge.​

Graffitied shop in Paris on Dec.6 — Photo: Daniel Derajinski/Abaca/ZUMA

It is not, however, impossible. As long as we don't forget the starting point or what we definitely don't want to break.

The starting point is a fractured France where everyone scans everyone else with suspicion. Yes, the current 42 different retirement schemes among different job categories create inequalities. We have the right to complain, but we can understand that it will take time to get out of it. Simplifying isn't easy. And the march toward a universal system will be done step by cautious step.

The risk is to deepen the fractures of our society.

The other fracture is the one that threatens the chain of solidarity between generations. The risk in amending the terms of this lifelong contract entered into by nation and individual is to end up placing children, parents and grandparents at odds with one another. The so-called "grandfather" clause is a nice nickname for legitimizing differences in treatment under the system. But what we can't afford with this reform is to have the younger generation — which will already bear the full brunt of climate change — to feel as though they have been cheated a second time.

What we risk breaking in this battle, it is clear to see, is what remains of a feeling of common interest and compromise in a country where one can no longer express an opinion without provoking hysteria. The risk, if we don't heed the voices of moderation, is to deepen the fractures of our society; and, in the end, completely fail to bring about the necessary reform. And from that, no generation will emerge a winner.

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