“We must work harder,” Emmanuel Macron told the French in his last year-end speech. And the French have gone to war.
When the President of the Republic asked to work more, he was referring to increasing the retirement age from the current 62 to 64. It is the star measure and the most controversial of the pension reform that this week began to be debated in the National Assembly. But the phrase implied a harsh judgment: the French work little or not as much as they should.
The French have responded with a resounding “no” to the president’s demand. On January 19 and 31, more than a million people took to the streets across the country against the reform. There are demonstrations called for February 7 and 11.
Hostility towards work has a tradition in France. Paul Lafargue denounced in The right to laziness, his famous pamphlet of 1880, “the madness” which represents “the love of work, the dying passion for work, carried to the exhaustion of the vital forces of the individual and his offspring.” A century and a half later, the environmentalist deputy Sandrine Rousseau heads a sector of the left that once again claims the “right to be lazy”, and opposes working more under the banner of a more balanced and free life.
“Are the French just lazy?” asks historian Robert Zaretsky in The New York Times. In an episode of Emily in Paristhe Netflix soap opera about an American in Paris where topics about both countries abound, the following dialogue is heard between the protagonist, Emily, and Luc, a Parisian colleague.
Luc: I think you Americans are doing it wrong. You live to work. We work to live. It’s okay to earn money, but what you call success, I call punishment.
Emily: But I enjoy the work (…), and it makes me happy.
The dialogue summarizes with a broad brush something that experts have analyzed: the peculiar relationship of the French with work. Although annual working time in France fell between 1975 and 2003, it has since stabilized. By hours worked, it is above Germany, although below Spain and the OECD average.
At the same time, this is the country that introduced the 35-hour week in 1998, though it has been relaxed ever since. It is also, at 62, one of the neighboring countries with the lowest retirement age. If the reform is finally adopted, it would continue to be 64, although in France 43 years of contributions are required to collect the full pension (in Spain, the age will increase to 67 in 2027, and 65 for those who have contributed for more than 38 years and half).
“There is a job crisis in France,” explains sociologist Dominique Meda, author of The job. A disappearing value? “The French are among the Europeans who attach the greatest importance to work, but they are also among those who are most disappointed, especially because of poor working conditions.”
“The French expect a good income from work, of course, but they also want it to be interesting, to have a good atmosphere, to be useful,” says Professor Meda. “At the same time, conditions are mediocre and recognition is weak: they complain of contempt or of being treated like pawns by a management based on diplomas and encrypted objectives. They complain about the workload, the lack of troops”.
The French actually have an ambivalent relationship with work, according to the economist Bertrand Martinot, similar to the one they have with the idea of happiness. “If you ask them how the world is going, they’ll tell you it’s catastrophic,” he explains. “But if he asks them: what about you? The French will say: ‘Good’. That is, individual happiness, public unhappiness. The same thing happens with work: if you ask how the world of work is going, they will tell you that it is horrible, that there is exploitation, that they hate capitalism… But if you ask them about their job specifically, they will say that it is going well, the manager Trust me, I manage to reconcile my private professional and private…”
Martinot is the author of The French at work, a study published this week by the Institut Montaigne think tank based on a survey of 5,000 active people in France. 77% declare they are satisfied at work, a stable level since before the pandemic. “Having said, this, we must go into detail,” says Martinot. “And there are sources of dissatisfaction, which are not new: remuneration, insufficient recognition at work and the absence of professional prospects.” A new reason for dissatisfaction, after the pandemic, is teleworking: half of the wage earners would like to have more options to practice it.
All this does not by itself clarify the reason for such a broad, transversal and cross-class opposition to the pension reform, and incomparable with other countries: seven out of ten Frenchmen reject Macron’s plan. One explanation is that retirement has become a symbol of the French social model. But there is something else. The increase in the retirement age to 64 years —after increasing from 60 to 62 in 2010— touches on the essentials: life, aging, illness, death. And it affects everyone. It is an existential matter.
“Retirement has a symbolic value as compensation for all the difficulties in life: ‘Life is difficult, but we have the pension’”, summarizes the veteran sociologist Dominique Schnapper. “And add to this that you are against the government, whatever it does. If both things are combined, we arrive at the current situation”.
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