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France: “A paradise inhabited by people who think they're in hell”

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

by Richard Pooley

How we sniggered, my wife and I. Before we had even bought our house in the village of Vayrac in the Lot Department in south-west France in 2013, we had noticed the incongruous name of an ugly little house right by the road where it crosses the railway track: Au Paradis. My mockery of the house’s inhabitants at our English-French group angered Fabienne, the village’s haberdasher. She told us of the past lives of the old couple who lived there. He, orphaned at twelve, had spent much of his life in poverty, his naivety taken advantage of. She, older than him, had been married to a drunk who beat her. She had been a railway level-crossing keeper elsewhere in the region and so, when widowed, had jumped at the chance to buy a house once occupied by someone with the same job. For the two of them, after the lives they had endured, their house was indeed a paradise. Over lunch last Saturday, Fabienne told us that the couple had died. But the new occupant of their house, no relation of theirs, has not renamed it.

I was reminded of their story and my foolish snobbery when listening to a clip of a recent interview on France Inter of the French geographer and travel writer, Sylvain Tesson. He recalled that he had once said that France was a paradise lived in by people who believed they were in hell. As someone who has gone around the world on a bicycle, walked across the Himalaya, and lived as a hermit for six winter months beside Lake Baikal, Tesson certainly can compare life in his own country with that of those living elsewhere. His belief that the French have no idea how lucky they are was apparently reinforced by his crossing rural and mountainous France on foot in 2015 after recovering partially from a fall from a chalet roof which had initially put him in a coma. His journey was the subject of a book and a 2023 film (“Sur les chemins noir”, with Jean Dujardin playing Tesson).

It’s all relative” was an aphorism I often heard my much older brother say when I was a teenager. He’s right. We should consider things not just on their own but in comparison with other things. To me, a well-off foreigner, Au Paradis is an ill-favoured bungalow; to its poor, battered owners it was a palatial refuge from a nasty world. Likewise, several of my French friends, especially those who live in Paris, wonder why we Brits love coming back to the Lot, to what is for them a cultural desert, peopled by ill-educated peasants and untrustworthy artisans. “C’est au bout du monde!”* one banker friend commented when we first moved here.

And so we come to what you may have already guessed is the question that this article is really trying to address: why are the French (or some 70% of them) so furious with President Macron and his government’s reforms to their pension system? Why can’t they see that they already have a much more generous deal than nearly anyone else; that even after Macron’s watered-down changes it will still be more more generous than anywhere else; and that if they don’t accept yet more reform, their children will end up worse off than people elsewhere?

This chart, though highly simplified, is self-explanatory:

Early last Saturday morning Macron signed into law the moving of France’s official retirement age, by three months a year, from 62 to 64 by 2030. Even in seven years time, most French will get their full state pension three years before the Germans, the Spanish, the British and the US Americans, who by then will have joined the Dutch and the Italians on a retirement age of 67.

Before I go any further I ought to declare an interest in this debate. I was self-employed in France for five years and was somewhat surprised to discover in late 2018, when I returned to live full-time in the UK, that a small part of the 25% of my income that I had paid in social security contributions was to be given back to me in a lump sum of about 4,500 € and a monthly pension of 65 € (index-linked!).

What is key in that piece of personal information is the fact that state pensions in France are linked to one’s earnings and to the type of work you have done (and hence the amount of social contributions you made). Currently, you get 37.5% to 50% of your annual average earnings on retirement, up to a maximum of 39,732 € per year. There is a minimum pension – 7,616 € per year for low-income earners, 9,996 € per year for those living alone. There are other benefits too (e.g. for elderly people in need) which don’t count as pensions but which ensure that hardly any retiree in France is poor in an absolute sense.

French trades unions claim that Macron’s reforms will hurt the poor and the working class. This is untrue. The reforms will increase the number of “qualifying years” required to get a full state pension from 42 to 43 in 2027. Essentially a qualifying year is one in which you paid social security contributions or had a valid reason not to – e.g. being on maternity leave. So, if you started work at any age under 20, as most working class people did, you will still get your full pension when you reach 62. Moreover, you can still retire early if you are disabled or were in a job deemed physically demanding, which many manual working class jobs were (though aren’t now – e.g. train drivers).

It’s the well-educated, who maybe did not start full-time work until they graduated from a university or grande ecole as late as their mid-twenties, who may find they will have not worked enough years to earn a full-state pension when they get to 64. But why should they retire at 64 when to do so could mean a retirement longer than their working lives? And anyway, why haven’t they saved or invested the much higher income they have earned than their not-so-well-educated fellow citizens? But such British thinking is very unFrench.

A few years ago I was having dinner with a couple in our village. He had retired earlier than 62, having worked for most of his life for SNCF, the French state-owned railways. She was still working as a psychiatric nurse. We got to talking about the differences between the British and French pensions systems. When I told them what I expected to receive from the UK state once I reached 65 – below £9,000 a year – they were incredulous. How could I live on that? I explained that I, like about two-thirds of British adults, had a private pension built up over many years by deductions from my salary and contributions from my employer(s). They could barely comprehend this system. I didn’t try to tell them that only a small proportion of those two-thirds had a private pension pot of any significant size (currently the average pension pot in the UK is £42,651, a fifth of what is regarded as the minimum necessary to live on when retired).

Many Brits I have spoken to on this subject are astonished to learn that private pensions are almost unknown in France. Even my excellent French accountant found the existence of mine an oddity. Surely, I was not telling her about the UK state pension I must be receiving (I was 61 when she started advising me). Macron has introduced tax incentives to get more French people to save for their retirement. But the vast majority of French people expect the French state to provide for them entirely when they retire. After all, they have contributed all these years through high income taxes and social security contributions. Their attitude can be summed up as: “It’s our money you are taking from us by delaying our retirement.” The fact that few retirees elsewhere in Europe are treated as generously as French ones is ignored or unknown.

Agnès Poirier is a journalist and author who has lived both in London and Paris, writing for serious newspapers on both sides of the Channel. She said this last month when trying to explain why the French are protesting so fiercely about Macron’s attempts to reform their pension system:

"The French are very fortunate and probably don't realise how fortunate they are.”

She was not just thinking about pensions. Also on her mind were the superb health service, the generous benefits given to the unemployed and disabled, and the excellent transport system.

Her view on why the French so readily take to the streets to protest is worth repeating:

We French were born to confront authority. For better or worse, whether we like it or not, whether we are even conscious of it, the revolution of 1789 changed the way we see ourselves and relate to power. Compromise is an art reserved for others. Confrontation is what we seem to be born for, what we secretly seek, what makes us tick. Macron is the first to enjoy a dispute. In a room, he will always walk straight to the few dissenters and debate with them at length, for he believes in his power of persuasion. With the pension reform, which was badly explained to the public by the government, he has taken a gamble for the sake of the country’s finances and in the interest of future generations, who will be increasingly burdened by the cost of their elders’ pensions. Tomorrow’s youth will probably be grateful to him, but they are not born yet. Today’s young people, however, are tempted to join the protests.”

Will those same young people in twenty or so years from now cheer on their children when they take to the streets to protest about whatever there is to protest about? Possibly. Will today’s young French still believe in 2043 they are living in Hell? Probably. Will I still be coming across the Channel to enjoy the many pleasures of life in France? If I am still alive, definitely.

*Neither my translation app’s “It’s at the end of the world" nor my preferred version "It’s the back of beyond” does justice to the contempt and fear of this French city-dweller’s phrase.


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