PARIS (Reuters) - French officials sought on Friday to play down a remark by Prime Minister Francois Fillon suggesting France should align its pension policy with Germany, which has voted to raise its retirement age to 67, five years above the French age.
President Nicolas Sarkozy weathered months of street protests last year over his decision to raise the French retirement age by two years to 62, leaving a dent in his poll ratings from which he has yet to recover entirely.
France’s retirement age -- lower than in many other European states -- is one plank of a generous social welfare system that offers citizens a range of perks, from rent subsidies to free healthcare, which most French people view as sacrosanct and few politicians dare to criticize in public.
Fillon touched on the sensitive retirement-age issue on Thursday at a speech to company heads in Paris, saying France needed to accelerate fiscal convergence with Germany in a range of areas, including retirement.
“We will have to move toward a common corporate tax policy between France and Germany, we will have to move toward a common work week, we will have to move toward a common retirement age,” he said.
Government officials moved quickly to temper the remark, saying there were no plans to revisit France’s retirement system in the short term but rather Paris would proceed with a gradual process of harmonization with Germany, as foreseen by Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as happening by 2029.
“The prime minister said we were moving toward a global convergence with the Germans, he did not say ‘I propose a reform for the upcoming months and weeks’,” Energy Ministry Eric Besson told Canal+ television.
“There is no reform in the works, the discussion could be opened in the years to come but in the next few months it is not on the table,” he added.
Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno told RTL radio the message Fillon was conveying was that there could not be big divergences between France and Germany. “The fact Germany has walked down that path (on retirement) does not mean that France will also.”
With a presidential election looming in seven months, Sarkozy is trying to walk a narrow line between reducing French public deficit and steering clear of austerity measures that might damage his chances at reelection.
Opposition Socialists criticized Fillon’s comments, saying the prime minister, who is highly popular and seen as a oneday presidential contender, was “getting things mixed up.”
“I agree that we should converge with Germany, but not before 2029, and, like Germany, making a distinction for strenuous jobs, which France does not do,” Party head Martine Aubry, a candidate for the Socialist Party primary, said.
Germany voted in 2007 to raise its retirement age to 67 from 65 but will do so gradually between 2012 and 2029. France raised its minimum retirement age to 62 in late 2010.
Nadine Morano, junior minister for families, said France would revisit its retirement scheme, but not before 2018.
We are going to have to put pension reform back on the table, so in 2018 there will be a revision, that was the plan,” she told RMC radio.
“It’s a general framework of desired convergence on fiscal policy, but as you know our retirement system is subject to negotiation with social partners,” she added. “In Germany it’s 2029 for (retirement) at 67 -- we are not there yet here.”
Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Michael Roddy