A place in the sun: French defend right to retire early

NICE, France (Reuters) – Most weekdays, 64-year-old Joelle Svetchine steps out of her French Riviera apartment, checks the sun is shining and the sea calm, and decides whether to go rowing.

“It clears your head being out on the water,” the pensioner told Reuters as she sculled across a bay near Nice under a blue sky. “I’m lucky to have free time and to be in good health, to have this freedom and no longer worry about work.”

The former physiotherapist says she can lead an active life because she retired at the age of 61 and 1/2, benefiting from a pension system that allows many French workers to stop working years before their peers in other parts of Europe.

That system though is now under threat from a reform of the pension system being driven through by President Emmanuel Macron. His reform has provoked weeks of protests and strikes.

France has one of the earliest retirement ages among industrialized nations and its pensioners enjoy the third highest income level on a purchasing power basis of all European Union citizens, behind only those in Luxembourg and Austria.

Macron, a former investment banker, is pressing ahead with creating a universal pension system from a mishmash of schemes, each with their own benefits. He says it will be fairer. Trade unions say it will mean workers affected could have to work longer to get the same pension.

Macron has for now pulled back on another plank of his reform, raising the retirement age by two years to 64, but that could be a temporary retreat as the government says the system is underfunded.

Svetchine began working in the private sector before switching to public hospitals. She said she frequently saw workplace injuries the likes of which unions cite as justification for rail workers, dockers and others retiring up to a decade earlier than typical workers.

“In all jobs, the body gets worn down. I know that in foreign countries, like Germany, people work longer. But in what state?” Svetchine said.

Macron has said a single, points-based system which gives every worker the same rights for every euro contributed will be fairer, in particular for women.

That aspect of the reform, at least, resonates with Svetchine, who failed to reach her full pension by the legal retirement age after having taken two years maternity leave and later working part-time.

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But she expressed support for the anti-reform strikes and protests.

Longer life expectancies meant that the early 50s was perhaps too early to retire nowadays, but a one-size-fits-all system that did not factor in a job’s physical and mental demands would be unjust, said Svetchine.

“After all, to enjoy retirement, you need to be in good shape,” she said.

Editing by Richard Lough and Alexandra Hudson

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