PARIS (Reuters) - When France’s parliament voted on Wednesday, it was not just to raise the retirement age. It was to erase a key symbol of the legacy of late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
For many of the millions who took part in nationwide strikes and street protests over the past two months, the final vote of approval in the National Assembly was about more than being forced to work two years longer for a pension.
The bill adopted by the lower house of parliament raises the minimum pension age to 62 from 60 on the grounds that the aging of the population will otherwise lead France to financial ruin.
The change is of deep significance in a country where many voters are in no mood to scrap generous, if costly, public services built up over decades.
Mitterrand cut the retirement age to 60 from 65 after he swept into power at the head of a Socialist-Communist alliance in 1981 for the first of two terms that lasted until 1995.
It was one of several social measures that included a fifth week of paid holiday and the shift to a 39-hour work week from 40 with no loss of pay.
Even President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose mantra was “work more, earn more,” had no apparent intention of raising the retirement age when he stood for election in 2007.
It was not in the conservative leader’s election program, and he told Le Monde newspaper in January 2007 that “the right to retire at 60 must stay.”
Three years and one deep recession later, he has changed his tune and is going further than just undoing the biggest reform of his immediate predecessors, the shift to a shorter 35-hour work week under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
As France, like most Western countries, crawls out of the worst slump since World War Two, the vision of an ever more generous welfare state is fading.
The national statistics office illustrated the challenge that the latest pension reform attempts to address when it said in a report this week that one in three people would be 60 or older by 2060, compared with one in five at the moment.
In France, that means greater strain on what is known as the pay-as-you-go pension system, where today’s wage earners pay the taxes needed to finance today’s pensioners.
Editing by Andrew Roche