You wouldn’t know it judging by the huge and angry crowds in France protesting against the rather tame government plan to raise the retirement age, but some citizens are in favor of it.
In interviews, members of this small and mostly silent minority would rather not give their full names, as they are fearful of what their neighbors, colleagues, friends, and even family members would say.
France’s most important newspapers, the left-leaning Le Monde and the conservative Le Figaro, recently highlighted some of these “dissidents” in a country where loving one’s job tends to be frowned upon. Both papers judged members of this largely silent minority newsworthy enough for prominent feature articles under headlines like: “Meet those rare French who don’t mind working a bit longer before retirement.”
These are citizens, in short, who are brave enough to confront a widely shared taboo on praising work and all its benefits, instead of disparaging it as a state of servitude from which only the much-maligned capitalists and “les patrons,” the bosses of even the smallest companies, stand to gain.
Trade union leaders and left-wing politicians rarely use the neutral verb “travailler” for work, but prefer disparaging synonyms like “bosser” or “trimer,” slaving away to the brink of exhaustion. Without any evidence, they blame work for the untimely deaths of people who remain active beyond their 60th birthday. “This government gives people who have worked all their lives the choice between death and poverty,” according to a politician of La France Insoumise, France Unbowed, the largest party on the left. Only on pensions does the party find itself in agreement with the hard-Right led by Marine Le Pen.
Roughly 80 percent of French oppose the pension plans, according to most opinion polls, which is not to say that 20 percent welcome them. This minority is split roughly down the middle between those resigned to a reluctant acceptance and those squarely behind the plans currently debated in both houses of Parliament. In the Lower House, parties supporting President Emmanuel Macron last year lost their majority. There, the president, in his second and final term, will need to depend on the moderate right-wing opposition to get his package approved.
Macron argues that raising the pension age is a necessity, as the nation’s life expectancy has risen while the ratio of workers to retirees has decreased. State-backed pensions rely on a structure in which workers and employers are assessed mandatory payroll taxes that are used to fund retiree pensions. In France, very few workers have personal pensions linked to capital investment.
Macron, who is difficult to categorize as either left or right, initially wanted the French to retire at 65. After waves of protests preceding the COVID pandemic, he settled for gradually raising the retirement age from the present 62 to 64 by 2030. Other European nations have without much resistance approved legislation pushing the age limit far higher, up to 67 years in Italy, Germany, and Spain.
Ordinary citizens in favor of working past their early 60s rarely get the opportunity to air their views on state-financed broadcasters such as France Inter (radio) and France 2 (television). These broadcasters bear some responsibility for promoting a cultural aversion to work now that France is once again immersed in a state of collective hysteria around as dull a subject as pension reform.
In days of pension-related turmoil, French public radio and television channels do not limit themselves to reporting on the strikes and demonstrations attracting hundreds of thousands of angry citizens. Their reporters often double as cheerleaders for the unions and the political Left and ultra-Left. That is, when the journalists, paid by the public purse, are not on strike themselves. During the many days of action declared by the trade unions and left-wing political parties, a mix of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, the usually exhaustive and well-presented news bulletins on public radio shrivel to a few minutes … about the strikes.
Elsewhere in the Western world, this would be seen as a journalistic dereliction of duty, of taking sides in a highly volatile dispute about money. In France, this kind of criticism is seldom heard.
Recently, reporters practically handed the first 20 minutes of the main afternoon news bulletin on France 2 over to supporters of the strikes. It ended with only one timid voice of dissent: a worker in a bakery complaining that the strikers are once again “taking the people hostage” by bringing public transport to a standstill and blocking oil refineries.
The demonstrations and strikes that began on Jan. 19 have remained relatively peaceful, but they have begun to turn violent, as French protests tend to do. In these cases, according to the conservative French philosopher and writer Pascal Bruckner, some French media outlets often downplay the burning and looting on the Champs-Elysées and in towns and cities across the land.
In an interview with the weekly magazine Le Point, Bruckner accused certain media outlets of voluntarily doing the rioters’ bidding, especially for those belonging to the loosely organized Yellow Vests movement. In so doing, Bruckner argued, they turn a blind eye to the Yellow Vests’ tyrannical, nihilistic streak, propensity to violence, and political extremism, of both the left- and right-wing variety.
The Yellow Vests’ idealistic coat of varnish wore off quickly when some of them literally started hitting the media that earlier had found excuses for their bouts of violence, according to Bruckner. On pension reform, he is on Macron’s side, which is rare in a country where intellectuals still tend to belong to the Left. In the interview, Bruckner recalled with horror sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s outcry during a previous, successful strike against pension reform. Raising the retirement age, according to Bourdieu, “constitutes nothing less than the destruction of civilization.”
Bourdieu is no longer with us, but the French aversion to work and the idealization of retirement are as strong as when he harangued demonstrators on a Paris street in 1995. Pascal Bruckner wrote a book, Une brève éternité, on the, in his view, infantile intellectual state of his country. In his book, he castigates France’s conformity to a stifling moral climate in which work is synonymous with suffering, in coherence with the country’s best anti-capitalist traditions. Bruckner, who regularly lambasts anti-white multiculturalism, was struck by a slogan he saw painted on a wall in Paris during an earlier strike wave: “Let’s strike until we retire.” With a touch of humor, it sums up the mood in a country where most intellectuals encourage such sentiments, he thinks.
In a recent interview with the Dutch magazine Elsevier, Bruckner argues that the French have been led to believe that life reaches its fullness only toward the end, shorn of all work-related obligations, not realizing that retirement can mean a trap, a condemnation to idleness that can make strong and healthy “elderly” people whittle away in no time. The praise of idleness has perverted the French, Bruckner goes on, citing as proof “teenagers old before their time,” incited by an extreme leftist politician in his 70s, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, to fight for their retirement plan.
Bruckner concluded: “These youngsters long for the end of their working lives before it has even begun. They should know that the twilight is radiant only when sunlight has shone on the morning and afternoon.”