Pensions and Social Security, France versus America


Americans are following, or should be following, the impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the House of Representatives. The British have been distracted by their parliamentary elections, overwhelmingly won on Dec. 12 by the Conservatives. The outcome guarantees that the nation will eventually withdraw from the European Union, a program called Brexit.

Meantime, I have been in France for the past few weeks, preoccupied by devastating national strikes that have shut down all public transportation and other public facilities, including some museums. Paris has an unusually fine system of public transport, but now the streets are packed with cars that do not move, a few buses that are overly crammed with riders who push onto them while often ignoring paying the fare. There are just two Metro, or underground, lines that are driverless because they automated.

Shopkeepers are in sad shape. Stores filled to the brink with Christmas gifts have no customers. So anxious to get to and from work, everyone has little time to think about anything else. My daughter, who lives on the east side of Paris and works on the west side, on a normal day devotes 30 to 40 minutes to get to her job. Now it takes over two hours. Her husband has taken her to her office on his motorcycle, but even that hardly matters because of traffic jams.

Several days of protests brought out nearly 1 million demonstrators, who cause even greater disruptions across the country. They clog the streets, turn over trash cans, and break the plate glass windows of the stores.

The dispute is between public employees and the government concerning the reform of the French pension system, something that Massachusetts citizens can learn from.

First, our Social Security program, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, has gone through several changes over the past 85 years. Second, public employees here also participate in the Massachusetts State Employees’ Retirement System (MSERS). Both are mandatory, requiring members to contribute, so neither one involves so-called free money. They are an investment that is available for those who retire, are disabled, and to beneficiaries who are survivors receiving death benefits.

The full retirement age in the U.S. has been rising for years. In 2020, it will be set at 67. While it is true you can collect benefits early, when you turn 62, you will never receive full benefits unless you decide to wait until you reach retirement age. 

The French program greatly differs. Today, the full retirement age is 62, the lowest in Europe and certainly far lower than the U.S. Created by Charles de Gaulle, who served as president from 1959 until 1969, the current system has 42 different programs, confusing and curious to Americans. Retirement depends on the job you have. Train engineers may retire at 52, for example, because it is said they work long hours and undertake hard work, though that was when trains were not automated. Ballet dancers may retire at 42, and utility workers at 57.

Social Security here faces insolvency in 2035. According to a recent study, France’s convoluted system will be bankrupt 10 years earlier, in 2025. This is why the current president, Emanuel Macron, ran in 2017 on the promise to create a single public plan. Macron wants to standardize the retirement age without spending less: He hoped this would placate the workers, but it has not done so. 

Instead, they have taken to the streets, a longtime French tradition that has its roots in the peasant uprisings (the “jacquerie”) of the 14th century, because they do not want to work longer than 42 or 52 or 57. Americans, meantime, often choose to work until or well past retirement age, either because they have to because they need the money, or they want to because they fear having nothing to do.

If successful, and there is no indication he will be, Macron would create a point-based retirement system. Workers would accumulate points that they use to cash out when they retire. It would parallel a program created in Sweden in 2003, based on lifetime earnings. It would apply to all employees, no matter their occupation.

Nothing like the French system exists in the U.S., nor should it ever. Surely Social Security and Massachusetts, with all their faults and need for improvement, place us in far better shape than our French friends.


Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, retired last July, way past the retirement age.