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Thursday, 11 April, 2002, 13:57 GMT 14:57 UK
Greying France's pension timebomb
Perpignan harbour
The Mediterranean climate attracts many retired people
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Sheila Barter
By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Perpignan

What could be better for retirement - sun, sea, sand and a southern French lifestyle.

Retired people produce nothing, but are vast consumers

Perpignan resident Fabrice Fortassier
Perpignan and its surrounding towns and villages are attracting retired people as never before.

In some parts of the region up to 40% are pensioners, and their numbers are being swelled all the time by couples heading south from northern France, and by settlers from Britain, Belgium and other European countries.

It is an area which more than demonstrates France's "demographic timebomb".

Pension reform

Dwindling birthrates and an ageing population mean a future for France in which fewer workers will be supporting more and more pensioners. The picture is similar in most other European countries.

Coast to coast election reports

  1. Calais unmoved by shorter week
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold
  5. Apathy rules as vote looms
  6. Nationalism fails to ignite voters
  7. Unemployment hits Narbonne

"It's ridiculous - retired people produce nothing, but are vast consumers," one local resident, Fabrice Fortassier, said.

"You see them buying a brand new car every two years, and all they use it for is to drive to play petanque."

French workers fear that the level of their pension contributions will have to rise to fund the army of pensioners. With more people also wanting to take early retirement, the funding pool is shrinking even further.

Both Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac have said they will try to tackle the question.

Mr Jospin has promised to maintain the level of pensions, come what may, and has said a referendum may be held on any radical reform.

He favours a scheme in which workers would continue to pay their state contributions, but would also join company investment schemes.

Jean-Francois Espi
Jean-Francois Espi: Many things need reforming
Employee contributions would be matched by companies, and management and unions would then decide how to invest the money.

Mr Chirac has said he will try to promote a "French-style" pension scheme, which would have elements of private pension plans.

Neither proposal seems to have grabbed voters' attention, and people in Perpignan tell me that, although it is acknowledged as a vital question, it is playing a very small role in helping voters make up their minds between the two men.

Society split

And in any case, the nettle may not be grasped by whoever wins the election.

Fabrice Fortassier
Fabrice Fortassier: Never voted in his life
"Many things need reforming in France - pensions, the system of laws, the number of civil servants," says Jean-Francois Espi, serving coffee in his pristine city centre patisserie.

"But with the population split 50-50 between Jospin and Chirac, it's not likely to happen. It would need a big majority of voters for it to happen."

There are other local issues which are of concern.

National Front support in the city is relatively high, fuelled by attitudes towards Perpignan's ethnic minority communities.

"The real die-hard Catalan people tend to be quite racist," one man told me.

"Anyone who isn't a Catalan is seen as a foreigner - whether you are from Paris or North Africa.

"Real Catalans see themselves as Catalans first and French second."


Crime is also cited as an election issue by some Perpignan voters, although it is not seen as a major local problem.

But here, as elsewhere, the level of interest in the election remains extraordinarily low.

"People aren't interested in the presidency because all the real power is in the hands of the unions," says Mr Espi.

"When they want something they go on strike and get what they want. No-one takes them on."

And Mr Fortassier, riding by bus into Perpignan town centre, through vineyards and past red-roofed Catalan villages, says he has never voted in his life and is not about to start now.

Sheila Barter has been travelling across France to gauge the mood ahead of the forthcoming presidential election - this is the eighth of her reports.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
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