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French women may be the biggest losers under Macron’s pension reform plan

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe with French Secretary of Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa on November 25, 2019.
French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe with French Secretary of Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa on November 25, 2019. Stephane De Sakutin, Pool vía Reuters

France’s high commissioner for pension reform has repeatedly maintained that women will be the "big winners" of the government’s new pension reform proposals. But advocates of economic gender parity are not so sure.

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Since he came to power in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has been a tireless advocate of gender parity. Earlier this year, Macron used the French presidency of the G7 to champion a feminist agenda with the launch of the Biarritz Partnership for Gender Equality. As Macron this week tackles one of the toughest challenges of his presidency – reforming France’s cumbersome pension system – his administration has been careful to note that the proposed simplification of the system aims to increase gender parity.

Women will be the "big winners" of the new rules, promised Jean-Paul Delevoye, Macron’s high commissioner for pension reform. "We will make this new system more redistributive and reduce inequalities between the pensions of men and women,” he said in March.

But some doubt Delevoye’s promises. “The government’s plan, by making retirement a strict reflection of careers … by making family rights conditional and by reducing the overall amount of pensions, further threatens women’s already insufficient [financial] autonomy,” warned a column by the collective, "Nos Retraites" (Our Retirement), published on the French news website Mediapart on Monday.

Macron’s new reform plan is part of a presidential campaign promise to deliver a simplified, universal system to replace the current 42 different pension schemes for various labour categories with a single, points-based system while pushing the French to work longer before retirement.

The French government is set to unveil its pension reform proposals on Wednesday. But that has not stopped the country’s powerful unions from protesting the measures with massive strike actions causing disruptions for a sixth consecutive day on Tuesday.

“While the government wants to impose new pension reforms, it remains very vague about the impact of its project on women's pensions. While some issues remain in the shadows, others are already known and are alarming,” noted the Nos Retraites column.

‘Women will be the big losers’

The primary fear for advocates of economic parity is that the pension reforms could penalise older women, an already vulnerable demographic, with studies showing that the gender pay gap is highest for women over 50.

Women receive lower pensions than their male colleagues, a reflection of the occupational inequalities that persist between men and women during their professional careers. Currently, a French woman receives an average gross monthly pension of €1,123 compared to €1,933 for a man.

Faced with this entrenched inequality, how will the new pension proposals offer women the parity the government has promised?

While Macron is aware of the public opposition to simply raising the retirement age of 62, one alternative is to curb benefits for those who stop working before 64 and giving a boost to those who retire after age 64.

Women, particularly mothers, tend to be penalised under the current pension system. To get their full benefits, mothers have to work longer to compensate for careers interrupted by pregnancies, parental leave, part-time work or periods of unemployment. While work activity for a man increases with the arrival of his first child, that of woman decreases, and even more so after the third child. As a result, in 2018, the average retirement age for men was 62.4 years compared to 63 years for women.

The government asserts that under the current system, 25 percent of women are "forced to work until the full age" (67 years) to avoid benefit cuts. With the new calculations, this segment of the work force will be able to retire at 64 with full benefits, the government maintains.

But for the remaining 75 percent of the female workforce, “There’s nothing exciting on the horizon," explained Agathe, a Nos Retraites spokesperson, in an interview with FRANCE 24. "Everyone will lose with this new reform," she maintained, “and women will not be spared”.

“A complete overhaul of the pension system could provide an opportunity to correct wage inequalities between men and women,” she said. “But with these new rules, on the contrary, women will be the big losers."

Widows and divorced women stand to lose

The biggest losers, activists warn, could be women dependent on survivor’s pensions. In the interests of simplification, the government intends to replace the 13 current mechanisms with a single system. The new system would be based on a “common pot” principle where everyone will receive 70 percent of the household's retirement earnings. The problem, though, is that it will take longer to receive it.

The age of entitlement for survivors of a deceased worker is likely to be raised to 62 years, compared to 55 years under the current system (and there’s no age threshold for civil service employees). However, 90 percent of beneficiaries are female, amounting to "additional years of [financial] precariousness for women", explained Agathe.

Divorced women are also potential losers, according to Nos Retraites representatives. Since survivor's pensions would be abolished in the event of a divorce, a woman who was married to a man for most of her working life and who has, for example, taken time off work to raise the couple's children, would not be entitled to a survivor's pension upon the death of her former husband.

It’s “a provision that calls into question the financial independence of women, who are sometimes forced to stay with their husbands in order to avoid financial uncertainty", explained Agathe.

Mothers of families penalised

But the biggest losers under the new reforms could be mothers, according to the calculations of Bruno Chrétien, president of IPS (Institut de la Protection Sociale), a Lyon-based think tank that opposes the new reforms.

Though they are presented as reforms that will be beneficial for women, they will mainly help single mothers, at the detriment of couples with one or more children, who will see a significant loss of income, according to IPS.

A major issue for women’s pensions, is a planned separation of "contributory" rights (derived directly from employee contributions) and “solidarity” mechanisms designed to avoid excessive inequality. The current system does not separate contributory from solidarity rights ensuring that compensation for periods of inactivity or part-time work are counted as full and complete pension rights. The break-up, experts warn, puts the solidarity budget at risk of adjustments, invariably reductions, subject to the political will and exigencies of successive governments.

Delevoye has insisted that “there will be only winners in the new system". When asked about the likelihood of mothers with more than three children losing their incomes, Macron’s pension reform czar noted that, “We decided to take all the money spent on family rights and redistribute it in a constant amount."

But nobody knows how this amount will be redistributed. And that’s the kind of detail Frenchwomen and activists will be looking for when Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveils the much awaited reform proposals on Wednesday.

This article was adapted from the original, which appeared in French.
 

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