Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Saturday, 11 September 2010 12:00 UK

French horror at 'Anglo-Saxon' welfare reforms

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Paris

In France this week, more than two million workers took to the streets to protest against proposals to raise the retirement age. But the harsh economic climate may continue to threaten the traditional French way of life.

All right, so they were not blockading British ferries at Calais or burning English lamb in rural Normandy.

Workers strike in Paris
French workers feel "scandalised" by the planned state pension changes

Nonetheless, the French strikers who brought the country to a standstill this week still had the Anglo-Saxons in their sights.

In France, I have come to realise, the term "Anglo-Saxon" is rarely one of endearment.

It is a useful umbrella description that seems to cover any number of perceived national weaknesses the other side of the Channel.

Last week, French scorn was reserved for the British retirement age, now set to rise to 67.

"Incroyable!", cried a population that jealously guards its savoir-vivre.

Last Tuesday, I was by the statue of Marianne, who personifies the values of the French republic, when I encountered one particularly vehement demonstrator at a central Paris rally.

"We should not be imitating our neighbours," she barked, perhaps noting my English tweed.

The French have always expected the state to provide - not only for their short working week, their excellent free schools and hospitals - but also their retirement

"We must defend what we have. Ours is not the Anglo-Saxon way."

Indeed not.

The French are scandalised by President Nicolas Sarkozy's determined push to raise the state pension age from 60 to - horror of horrors - 62.

A modest rise in European terms and in the current economic climate, you might think, not unreasonable.

'New mindset'

Yet the French have always expected the state to provide - not only for their short working week, their excellent free schools and hospitals - but also their retirement.

Jean-Francois Cope of the UMP parliamentary body
The UMP's Jean-Francois Cope says the state pension age could rise to 63

Most people here do not contribute to private pensions.

The vast majority rely on the state pension, and compulsory membership of industry schemes.

The politicians, however, know that this has to change.

Jean-Francois Cope, the head of the ruling UMP parliamentary body and a rising star of the centre-right, says the French need a new mindset.

"By 2018, the French might have to wait until they are 63 for retirement," he whispers.

"We can still provide a state pension. But if we live longer, we work longer."

He added: "The language and the psychology will have to change in France."

More sleep

Change will not come easily or quickly.

Consider these figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development:

Workers in Paris
The pension reforms will affect workers from all walks of life

On average, a Frenchman will spend 135 minutes eating every day - his American and Canadian counterparts take just 50 minutes.

The French get more sleep, and then there are those famously long summer holidays.

In August, French society heads for the hills, the beaches, the mountains. Anywhere but the office.

At least this year's break gave President Sarkozy some respite from the restless French unions, which are supported by three-quarters of the French people.

Though it did not go unnoticed that most of the workforce had been back at work for just one week before they were all out on national strike again.

To be fair, despite the "down-time" the French are still hugely productive, even in a 35-hour week.

When it comes to the welfare state, successive presidents have dodged the ball
Gerard Lannelongue, director of French education provider

The problem, some experts will tell you, is that the span of their working life is just too short.

Most do not start working until the age of 26 or 27, youth unemployment runs at 10%, and come the age of 55 they expect to be winding down to a long and enjoyable retirement.

A colleague came across one very spry demonstrator this week who finished work 20 years ago and is now an accomplished hang-glider.

Mr Cope is having none of this.

"From now on an employer will not ask what a 55-year-old will do with his retirement," he warns.

"He will ask what he wants to do in the next stage of his career."

Reform battle

France's top business brass are very much onside.

I rubbed shoulders with some of the country's leading directors at a glitzy business conference the other day.

Two workers strike at plans to increase the French retirement age
Further strike action is planned

Many were talking "Anglo-Saxon" - the language of a longer working life, more enterprise, more reform, less bureaucracy, a smaller state and a bigger society.

"You have to have sympathy for Mr Sarkozy," said Gerard Lannelongue, director of one of France's biggest education providers.

"When it comes to the welfare state, successive presidents have dodged the ball," he added.

"Mr Sarkozy has no option but to carry it."

Carry it he must - to the unions.

They have already ensured that some 700 amendments to the pensions bill be debated in the parliament, including proposed exemptions for those in "dirty or dangerous jobs".

These include not only the steelworkers or those employed in public transport, but shop assistants and teachers. They are also clamouring for recognition too.

France - 60
UK, Italy - 65 for men, 60 for women
Germany, Netherlands, Spain - 65
Greece - 65 for men, 62 for women

"The idea that a teacher cries at retirement is reserved solely for the movies", gasped one seemingly exhausted maitresse.

More action is due in a few days time, and another demonstration after that. It is a question of who blinks first.

But perhaps President Sarkozy can draw some straws of comfort.

The mood last week was sullen and resentful, but two-thirds of the marchers surveyed said they did not think their protests would make one jot of difference.

They appear stolidly resigned to their fate. Very Anglo-Saxon.

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In pictures: France protests
07 Sep 10 |  Europe
Strikes over pensions hit France
24 Jun 10 |  Europe
France country profile
12 Feb 12 |  Country profiles

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