Analysis: Pension reform strikes tell story of French work malaise

Nationwide strike in France against pension reform
A protester throws a projectile amid tear gas during clashes near the Invalides during a demonstration against French government's pension reform plan in Paris as part of a national strike and protests in France, January 31, 2023. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/File Photo
  • French demonstrations attract more diverse crowds than usual
  • Pandemic has forced employees to reevaluate work-life balance
  • 35-hour work week has boosted burn-out rates, experts say

PARIS, Feb 15 (Reuters) - French lawyer Isabelle Dumond said she had never taken part in a demonstration against pension reforms before, as she joined compatriots who appear ready to fight for a better work-life balance after years of being pushed to work harder.

"I work in an office. I don't have to carry bricks all day. But I'm mentally exhausted by the pace, the productivity that's demanded of us," she told Reuters.

"For me, the reform would mean working an extra year and a half, but I can't take it anymore," the 56-year-old continued as she stood in front of the Paris opera house last Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to raise the retirement age by two years to 64, in a move he warns is vital to avoid the collapse of the creaking state pension system and ensure younger generations will not carry the burden of financing the old-age of the "baby boomer" generation.

The reform could yield an extra 17.7 billion euros ($19.18 billion) in annual pension contributions to plug the government's funding gap, according to Labour Ministry estimates. The left-wing opposition says the gap could be filled by taxing the rich and companies more.

For Macron there's a lot at stake. Failure to reform pensions would tarnish the rest of his second and final term and stop his reformist zeal dead in its tracks, government sources say.

However, after more than two decades of a 35-hour working week, which has pushed productivity rates in France above most of its European peers, the French are showing signs of burn-out and a change in attitude towards the workplace.

"The pandemic has forced the most privileged classes, those from the private sector, small managers, to re-think their relationship to work, something the working class had done a long time ago," Jeremie Peltier of the Jean Jaures Foundation think tank said.


Jean-Jaures foundation researchers found that although 60% of the French rated their job as "really important" in their lives in 1990, only 21% did so in October 2022.

Moreover, 61% of the French say they'd rather earn less and have more free time. But in 2008, the reverse was true: 62% of the French said they'd rather earn more and have less free time.

The 35-hour work week, introduced in 2000, is exacerbating the current malaise, labour experts say. Reducing working time forced French companies to squeeze more out of their employees to keep up with their international competitors, by cutting break times for instance.

As a result, productivity in France rose 18% to $67.42 per hour worked in 2019 from 2000. This compares with a 16.8% increase in Britain over the same period to $59.52. French productivity was also ahead of Germany's $67.06 and Italy's $53.66, according to OECD figures.

But the productivity drive left France with one of the highest rates of burn-out in Europe, according to the Eurofound European Working Conditions Survey. France and Luxembourg were the only countries in Western Europe with a "high" rate of burn-out at above 3.25 on a scale of one to five in the 2018 study.

"France is one of the countries with the highest productivity and also one where we work the least," said Laurent Pietraszewski, who oversaw Macron's previous attempt at reforming pensions in 2019/2020.

"This intensity is one of the reasons why people feel burnt out," said Pietraszewski, who used to work in human resources at Auchan supermarkets and is now a consultant outside government.

This unease towards the workplace helps to explain why the French demonstrations against pension reforms are attracting bigger and more diverse crowds and morphing into a broader movement questioning the place of work in society, making it harder for Macron to get the genie back in the bottle.

As the government's bill continues to make its way through parliament, a fifth nationwide strike is scheduled for Thursday.

The government has been surprised by the huge turnout, with a protest on Jan. 31 attracting 1.27 million protesters across the country. The number of protesters swelled to over a million much faster than during the 2010 reforms that pushed the pension age to 62 from 60, for instance.

But this frustration with the workplace clashes with a president who pitched himself as the candidate of "work". He once said he didn't like the word "strenuous" when applied to work because "it implied that work is painful."

Macron's government hopes lower unemployment and looser labour laws will increase labour mobility and reduce the number of people who stay in jobs they don't like because they fear being jobless.

After years of chronically high unemployment, much above the rates in Germany and Britain, France is starting to make progress. At 7.2 percent at the end of 2022, unemployment hit a 15-year low. But it may not have dropped low enough and for long enough for French attitudes to change.

For Dumond, the lawyer, raising the retirement age feels like the last straw.

"Pension reform was a red line for me," she said.

(This story has been corrected to show that the retirement age rose two years to 64 from 62)

Reporting by Michel Rose; additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Sharon Singleton

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