Why the French Want to Stop Working

President Macron’s attempt to raise the pension age has the nation up in arms.

An illustration showing a piggy bank with a French flag flying from it
Getty; The Atlantic

If you want to understand why the French overwhelmingly oppose raising their official retirement age from 62 to 64, you could start by looking at last week’s enormous street protest in Paris.

Retirement before arthritis read one handwritten sign. Leave us time to live before we die said another. One elderly protester was dressed ironically as “a banker” with a black top hat, bow tie, and cigar—like the Mr. Monopoly mascot of the board game. “It’s the end of the beans!” he exclaimed to the crowd, using a popular expression to mean that pension reform is the last straw.

President Emmanuel Macron won reelection easily last year, partly on a promise to overhaul this system, though his party lost its parliamentary majority soon after. At first glance, his argument for changing France’s retirement rules seems like simple math: The French are living far longer than they used to, so there aren’t enough workers currently paying into the system to cover the pension checks going out to all these retirees.

France is not alone with this problem. Rich countries everywhere are facing similar demographic challenges, and pushing up their retirement ages to cope. The advocates of reform in France should have more room to maneuver than most, because retirements here last an average of about 25 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s among the longest in Europe, where retirements even out at about 22 years, and well above the average retirement duration in the United States, where people now live for about 16 years after they stop working (measured from when most Americans start collecting Social Security, at 63).

Yet this fiscal math has convinced hardly anyone here in France. In a recent national survey, 80 percent of respondents opposed Macron’s proposal, including adults of all ages and socioeconomic groups, as did a slight majority among members of Macron’s own political party.

Why have the French dug in their heels on this seemingly necessary, perhaps unavoidable reform?

Part of the answer is that they already made a concession on the pension age, and not so long ago. In 2010, the right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in raising it from 60 to 62—despite fierce street protests. Another age hike faces even more determined opposition.

The larger picture, though, is that the French have their own distinct conception of work and retirement, which is still winning. As an American, I find their perspective both jarring and refreshing. It deserves a hearing among those of us who don’t often encounter it, and probably don’t agree with it.

Although France is a successful capitalist country, its population is skeptical of unimpeded free markets. In a 2019 national poll, about two-thirds of respondents said they had a “pretty bad” or “very bad” opinion of capitalism. France’s once-powerful Communist Party is now a minor political player, but it was in a government coalition as recently as the late 1990s and retains some presence—the party still counts about a dozen deputies in the National Assembly and hundreds of mayors, mostly of small cities.

Amid the skepticism about market economics lies a broader French tendency to frame political issues as a battle between owners and employees. That’s especially prevalent among sympathizers of both the far left and the far right, which, combined, won 45 percent in the first round of last year’s presidential vote. In that 2019 opinion survey, 81 percent of far-left voters held negative views of capitalism, and 72 percent of far-right voters did.

The fiery politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who heads the far-left party La France Insoumise, has called for France to lower its retirement age back to 60. When the billionaire businessman Elon Musk tweeted his support for Macron’s pension reform last week, Mélenchon retorted: “Choose your side. Capital or labor.”

Billionaires like Musk get some flak in the U.S., of course. But when my kids were learning to read, American friends sent them admiring children’s biographies of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. In 2016, the U.S. made a would-be billionaire its president—we tend to see entrepreneurs as aspirational figures who have earned their loot.

In France, however, the well-off and their perceived allies are the villains. Hence Mr. Monopoly. In a 2020 national poll, 82 percent of those surveyed said rich people were not well regarded, mostly because of the perception that they try to avoid taxes.

Macron himself is pejoratively called the “president of the rich” because of his nearly four-year stint at a French investment bank. Then practically his first act as president in 2017 was to abolish the “wealth tax,” an annual fee on net assets above 1.3 million euros ($1.4 million)—a move meant to encourage rich people to return to France. (He in fact replaced the old tax with a new one on real-estate holdings with a net value above 1.3 million euros, but that got far less press.)

Macron soon also signed a law that made it easier for companies to fire people—and did not help his cause when, shortly afterward, he told an unemployed gardener that he need only “cross the street” to find a job in a hotel, café, or restaurant. A French TV show then tracked the young man as he crossed lots of streets and failed to find a job. (In Macron’s defense, unemployment in France has fallen since then.)

The protesters’ other main target at last week’s march was Bernard Arnault, head of the French luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH and currently the world’s richest man, having relieved the Twitter-distracted Musk of that title. My retirement will be fine read one mock quote on another protester’s sign, next to Arnault’s picture. It might as well have said Let them eat cake.

In the pension debate, all of this translates into a belief that the government wants workers to absorb the pain, while sparing the wealthy. “The money is there; it just always goes to the same people,” said a 40-year-old nurse I spoke with at the demonstration. He argued that France could easily pay for the pensions “by balancing out the money between the more and less rich.”

“There’s an idea that the changes should be made exclusively to the detriment of workers,” says Dominique Méda, a sociology professor at Paris Dauphine–PSL University who studies attitudes toward work. “This is all happening amid the announcement of enormous dividends and the crazy rise in the fortunes of billionaires. It makes people angry.”

Another factor, she says, is the workplace culture in France: Many people enter jobs expecting to be useful and find personal satisfaction, but according to her research, “employees too often say that they don’t serve any purpose, that they’re invisible, they’re pawns. And for many, this obviously explains their desire to quit working as quickly as possible.”

Their solution is to band together against another authority, the state. Last week’s march and nationwide strike—the largest of Macron’s tenure—unusually united all of France’s major trade unions.

The protesters seemed disgruntled with their lot, but when I told a group of them that I’m American, they gasped and said Oh, là là.

“I would never go live there, absolutely not,” said another nurse, a 47-year-old mother of three. “We Europeans, what we understand is that everything there is based on money, cash. There’s no solidarity. And it’s a shame.” In France, she said, “the guy that gets up in the morning and cleans the streets, we’re grateful to him, too.”

Some members of the professional class also express solidarité with those in difficult blue-collar jobs. “These workers are the ones that France applauded during COVID,” wrote Cécile Prieur, the executive editor of the center-left newsweekly L’Obs, in a recent editorial. “They’re also the ones with among the lowest life expectancies, who thus lose any real chance to enjoy a long retirement, in good health.” Everyone deserves “the elementary justice of a decent retirement,” she concluded.

In fact, the math of a 25-year pension does not necessarily favor the retirement-age hawks. The state currently spends 14 percent of GDP on public-sector pensions, compared with the 7 percent, on average, spent by other rich countries, according to the OECD. But a 2022 report by a government advisory group forecasts that, as France’s economy grows in the coming decades, the percentage of government spending on pensions won’t need to increase much, and will eventually stabilize or even decline.

The French have not always had such high hopes for their retirement. In the 1960s, stopping work was considered a “social death,” wrote Vincent Caradec, a French sociologist who studies aging. Most workers at the time were men, who generally retired at age 65, then died at 70.

That began to change when, in 1982, the Socialist President François Mitterrand lowered the retirement age from 65 to 60. By the late 1990s, the nature of employment and life expectancy had changed so much that many people could expect 20-year stretches after they stopped working. This brought the idea that retirement should be a time of personal fulfillment and self-actualization—the so-called third age of life. (The whole phenomenon led the French journalist Danièle Laufer to write a book about the identity crisis some suffer when, after idealizing what retirement will be like, they suddenly face the reality of all that free time. “I compare it to the crisis of adolescence,” she says.)

A long retirement for all came to be seen as a basic right and a fact of life. French seniors are everywhere in Paris: roaming museums and supermarkets at midday, and hosting their grandchildren for week-long school holidays. “We’re very attached to our social model,” says Méda, the sociologist.

That sentiment was on display at the march, where a protester held a placard warning Métro, boulot, caveau, or “Train, work, tomb,” a mordant play on the French expression Métro, boulot, dodo, about the daily grind: “Train, work, sleep.” I passed a young woman holding a cheeky sign demanding retirement at age 20: We need time to screw!

They mostly have it already. Although the headline retirement age here is 62, most French people retire just over a year earlier. Some have lost jobs in their 50s, can’t get rehired, and drop out of the labor market entirely (raising the retirement age would be an extra burden for them, after their unemployment benefits run out). Others belong to so-called special-regime categories of workers, which include air-traffic controllers, priests, ballet dancers, and others, who are allowed to get their pensions much earlier.

All of this entitlement doesn’t seem excessive to the French. On the contrary, they regard it as civilized and humane. For all the system’s deficits and failings, the French believe that they have something precious and that “national solidarity,” as they call it, requires them to assemble in its defense. “For health, for education, for retirement, we know that we’re privileged and we want to protect this,” explained another nurse, aged 56.

All of the opposition has already softened the government’s position. Macron initially wanted to raise the retirement age to 65. A minister, Gabriel Attal, said this week that he’s open to suggestions for how to “enrich” the government’s proposal, and tried to claim the “national solidarity” mantle himself by saying the reforms are meant “to save our system” and, above all, benefit “those who toil.” (He told this to Le Parisien, a daily newspaper owned by Arnault’s LVMH.)

The government plans to send the measure to the National Assembly in early February, and it could go to a vote before the end of April. If that fails, Macron might try to push his plan through by presidential decree.

Meanwhile, the labor unions that organized last week’s march and strike plan to hold another national shutdown on January 31.

Oh, là là.