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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les régimes spéciaux en boucs émissaires

by Yves Housson

France: Special Retirement Plans Used as Scapegoats

Translated Tuesday 18 September 2007, by Gene Zbikowski

Retirement. Prime Minister François Fillon’s declarations on Sunday has everyone up in arms in the trade unions and on the left. The calling into question of the retirement plans in state-owned companies is preparation for the offensive against the general retirement scheme programmed for 2008.

For the first time in the four months since President Nicolas Sarkozy took the helm of the ship of state, Prime Minister François Fillon has succeeded in arousing a tidal wave of protests when he threatened on Sunday to push through a “reform” of the special retirement plans. The reform “is ready,” and the government is only waiting for the “green light” from the French president to begin negotiations, the prime minister announced, adding that the “reform” could “be become reality in the next few months,” and that he was "not certain that the legislature needed to pass a law.”

An old and hackneyed right-wing slogan.

All the trade unions – the CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC, UNSA, and SUD — reacted strongly, despite their different attitudes to the question. On the political chessboard, the left also made itself heard, but in considerably different tones. The battle over retirement pensions has well and truly begun. Far from trying to round off the sharp edges in the terms used by his “collaborator” Fillon, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French head of state, drove the nail home, speaking from Germany, where he was visiting yesterday: “I was elected to achieve thorough-going reforms to modernize France, and these reforms will be made. Quite precisely, I have a meeting on September 18, and on that day I’ll indicate how things stand.” The meeting in question is a forum held by journalists from the labor press, before which the president is to deliver a speech which, it is rumored, will be full of announcements regarding labor policy.

Stigmatizing the special retirement plans, by which some categories of employees can retire at age 55, for instance, which are presented as privileges, is an old song and dance with the right wing. Harping on the theme again, at this time, is a matter of tactics in preparation for the great show-down on all retirement plans, which is planned for 2008. According to François Fillon, it is a question — in the name of equality — of “aligning the special retirement plans with the civil service retirement plan.” In plain English, the railroad workers, electricians and natural gas workers, and the workers on the Paris commuter rail system are expectd to agree to giving up advantages that are clearly linked to the difficult nature of their jobs. The length of time for which they will have to pay into the retirement fund in order to enjoy a full pension will be extended by two-and-a-half years, from 37.5 years to 40 years, civil servants having already been “aligned” with the private sector retirement scheme by the Fillon reform of 2003.

Once the special retirement plans become “normalized,” the government figures it will be better able to justify the new “efforts” it is getting ready to demand of the workers who are paying into the private sector and civil service retirement plans. The Prime Minister has already trumpeted that he intends to have Parliament pass laws in 2008 to lengthen the time people must pay into retirement plans to 41 years in 2012. For its part, the French employers’ association, MEDEF — whose every whim Nicolas Sarkozy has shown that he feels bound to satisfy — has announced that its goal is to change the legal retirement age outright, from 60 years at present to 62 years. Other austerity measures, which will affect the formulae for calculating pensions, so as to lower the monthly pension, are also being considered.

Persuading people that the sacrifices being demanded of the special retirement plans will make it possible to solve the deficit of the general retirement plan is pure hogwash. The “savings” to be expected are not of the same order of value as the financial needs of the Old Age Fund of the social security system.

A very real deficit.

On the other hand, the problem of equality among the future retirees paying into the different retirement plans is not without foundation. But it all depends on how you approach the matter: Is it a question of eliminating the specificities of the special plans, which were conceived as — and which are very generally seen as — compensation for the difficulty of the jobs in the public companies concerned, or is it a question of drawing inspiration from those specificities in order to reform the other retirement plans? Don’t forget that, although the Fillon law of 2003 provided for negotiations on taking the difficulty of the work done into account under the general social security retirement plan, those negotiations have never been brought to a conclusion, due to the bosses’ obstruction tactics and the government’s laissez-faire attitude... As to the very real deficit run by the entire system of retirement plans, it begs the question, that was totally ignored during the presidential election campaign, of the portion of national wealth that France is ready to consecrate to the collective financing of social security. This is a question that Fillon is trying — yet again — to zap, by inveighing against the special retirement plans.

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