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France's new retirement age goes against a quintessential French notion

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests over raising the age of retirement continue in France. Things have gotten loud this week. Protesters all over the country have revived a traditional form of protest known as the casserolade, or pots-and-pans protest. It's all to show discontent over President Macron raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. More protests are expected on May 1, France's Labor Day. NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith has the story.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: In the latest act of protest against the raising of the retirement age, French protesters got loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF POTS AND PANS CLANGING)

VANEK SMITH: From Paris to Marseille to Strasbourg, protesters gathered in public squares by the thousands, banging pots and pans together, chanting, waving flags. Bernard Salanie is an economist at Columbia. He grew up in France.

BERNARD SALANIE: Ever since I was a kid...

VANEK SMITH: Oh.

SALANIE: ...I've heard people talk about, oh, when I'm retired, I will do this and that - like, life actually starting when you retire.

VANEK SMITH: Life starts when you retire, when you finally get to take from the economy you've been giving to for decades. And France puts its money where its mouth is. About 15% of the country's economic output goes to paying for pension benefits to retired people. That is almost the highest in the world. The U.S., by contrast, devotes about 7% of economic output to retirees.

SALANIE: The French are considering that this right to retire early is part of their culture. That's how they want to live their life, and that is being taken away from them.

VANEK SMITH: President Emmanuel Macron says raising the age of retirement is necessary. After all, France's pensions will be $2 billion in the red by the end of the year and 10 billion in the red by 2025. He says the reform is needed to make France's economy more dynamic. But that is part of the problem, says Maher Tekaya with CFDT, one of France's main unions.

MAHER TEKAYA: The relation with work is changing.

VANEK SMITH: The relation with work is changing. Tekaya says these last few weeks have been taking a stand against work encroaching on more and more of life. Of course, as we were talking, I realized it was about 7 p.m. Paris time.

Is now an OK time?

TEKAYA: Yes, I'm in my office, so it's fine.

VANEK SMITH: You're in your office still? That's quite late.

TEKAYA: No, we often finish late here.

VANEK SMITH: We often finish late here. Tekaya says there is this misconception people have that the French don't want to work. But instead, he says, the protests are against this idea that we all live to serve the economy, to make it grow, instead of the economy serving us, making our lives better. Economist Bernard Salanie says that idea is at the heart of why many protesters are calling for pensions to be funded by raising taxes on the wealthy, those for whom the economy is working quite well, instead of putting the burden on working-class French people, who are now being asked to sacrifice more of their lives to a system that's supporting them less and less.

SALANIE: I mean, they dislike fat cats in general and...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

SALANIE: They think they should be paying a higher share.

VANEK SMITH: Salanie says that's part of why, in previous weeks, protesters have stormed the French stock exchange and the headquarters of luxury good-maker LVMH, which is run by Bernard Arnault, one of the richest people in the world.

SALANIE: LVMH is an obvious target, a symbolic target.

VANEK SMITH: Salanie says some kind of reform is needed for the pension system. After all, some of the only countries that pay out more of their country's wealth to retired people are Greece and Italy, both of which are in dire economic straits. But at the moment, Salanie says, people are just not really listening to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF POTS AND PANS CLANGING)

VANEK SMITH: When asked to comment on the pots-and-pans protest, President Macron simply said saucepans are not going to move France forward. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IGGY POP SONG, "LUST FOR LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.