Inside Story

“Something which touches every citizen in my country”

It’s seventy years since France introduced major social security laws. Daniel Nethery was there for the celebration

Daniel Nethery 30 October 2015 1749 words

Attached to diversity: France’s social security and women’s rights minister Marisol Touraine, who opened the anniversary conference. Mathieu Delmestre/Parti Socialiste

“Social security has irreversibly changed our country,” declared Marisol Touraine, minister for social security and women’s rights, as she opened the official celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the French system. Around a thousand of us had queued in the rain outside the historic Maison de la Mutualité, in the Latin Quarter in Paris, to commemorate two October 1945 pieces of legislation that set in place France’s postwar social security system. Those reforms, Touraine suggested, were the mark of a country that had become “lucid regarding the causes of its collapse,” and the social security system could rightly take the credit for allowing France to maintain a “robust” birthrate today of (just) over two children per female.

Members of the audience might have been excused if this juxtaposition of wartime soul-searching and the 2015 birthrate recalled to mind Marshal Pétain’s announcement of France’s capitulation to Nazi Germany in June 1940. “Too few children, too few arms, too few allies” were to blame for the defeat, according to the leader of Vichy France. Then again, the idea that the French system was born in 1945 (in fact, it largely dates back to 1928–30 legislation) shows how social security slots into a complex of liberation mythology that remains deeply ingrained despite the work of historians like Robert Paxton.

This tension put the invited historians in a delicate position. Jean-Pierre Azéma, who stepped in for an ill Jean-Pierre Roux, spoke of the ruin of France at the end of the war, his sombre tone dispelling the effervescence created by the minister’s address. Some of the audience voted with their feet, hoping perhaps to find another croissant in the foyer of the amphitheatre, while both my neighbours voted with their fingers, squiggling on their smartphones.

Azéma then vacated the podium for Bruno Valat, whose work has challenged much of the mythology surrounding the 1945 reforms. Valat admirably navigated the conflicting obligations of academic integrity and celebratory mood by reasserting the key findings of his research while emphasising what was new and ambitious in the postwar reforms. He referred in particular to the vision of social security as the basis of true social democracy, symbolised by the elections for the boards that governed the system in their early years.

The day was then given over to a series of roundtable discussions. As at other conferences on the topic, it seemed to me that women, while usually outnumbered by men, had a better grasp of both the financial and the practical dimensions of social security. Too often, however, speakers had a firm grip on only one of these aspects, and some had neither financial nor practical insights to share. One speaker, just before the lunch break, lectured those of us still paying attention on the contradiction inherent in a system that compensated medical expenses without requiring citizens to take any responsibility for their own health. Most of the audience reacted to this exhortation by massing outside for a collective smoko.

After the thousand or so of us had been treated to a free lunch, Touraine engaged her ministerial counterparts from Germany, Sweden, Luxembourg and Tunisia in a discussion about the future of social security in Europe. They were joined by Jonathan Gruber, an outspoken advocate of Obamacare and professor of economics at MIT. Both Andrea Nahles, the German labour minister, and the impressive Swedish social security minister, Annika Strandhäll, spoke about the refugee situation, an issue that otherwise failed to rate a mention. Nahles pointed out that the arrival of so many young refugees had turned the demographic challenge of the German social security system on its head. Strandhäll agreed: “We are trying to see this as one of the possibilities to save the retirement system.”

Strandhäll also refreshingly reminded the audience that social security is “something which touches every citizen in my country.” This may have been implied throughout the day, but not one French speaker explicitly said it. Each of us was given a printed textile carry bag, complete with colourful badge, which included a glossy magazine profiling writers and philosophers, film directors and even a rugby player and recounting their thoughts on social security. There was no mention of ordinary people, and there didn’t appear to be many in the audience either. As I wandered among the panels of a poster exhibition during the lunch break, I felt thankful that I’d managed to get my hands on a suit jacket. Apart from my jeans and lack of tie, I looked very much the part.

The ministers then discussed the future of Europe-wide social security. Romain Schneider, Luxembourg’s social security minister, reported on a “willingness for convergence” at two high-level European social policy meetings. But there was a need, he said, “to direct countries in the right direction” (diriger les pays vers des orientations correctes) in order to avoid a rush “to the bottom” – an allusion to a minimum safety net–style scheme. Schneider also characterised the meetings as “small, informal lunches,” underlining the risk that European social reform would remain the province of “an exclusive club” of officials and politicians. This allusion to one of the most persistent criticisms of the eurozone – that it is a monetary union bereft of political or social structures – prompted Nahles and Strandhäll to express deep concern that talk of social reform might involve finance ministers but exclude their counterparts in social portfolios.

Yet the social security and social affairs ministers also professed a sentimental attachment to national systems, which made it difficult to see how greater European convergence might be achieved. Strandhäll, while acknowledging the consensus for the free movement of labour, nonetheless felt it “important for there to be different social models,” and frankly acknowledged that Swedish unions would not be happy with talk of a (substantially reduced) European minimum wage. Touraine, in an attempt to wrap up the discussion on an optimistic note, inadvertently alluded to similar difficulties stemming from national political considerations. “I am very attached to diversity,” she said. “We do not have the same histories; do we need the same retirement system everywhere in Europe?” Nowhere is it written down, she concluded, that all countries should have the same retirement age.

Europe certainly presents a variety of social security systems, all of which could serve as models for a eurozone scheme. But one of the lessons of the Greek “crisis” – which has been overshadowed by the refugee situation – is that issues like disparities in national pension ages do generate strong popular feeling and diminish the will for common solutions. Without genuine convergence of social security systems, the future of Europe-wide social security looks dim.

As the day unfolded I reflected on the representation of social security in France, how their system differs from Australia’s, and the implications of the Australian model of social security for democracy. The French, in my experience, are positively “chauvinistic” in their pride about the sécu, and sometimes I’m asked whether Australia has its own social security system. The fact that Australia adopted age pensions and unemployment benefits decades before France usually comes as a surprise to my questioners, and I have seen French historians struggle to convince incredulous listeners that their country was a relative latecomer to social security.

It’s hard to picture an Australian government of any persuasion throwing a gala event to celebrate social security – Gough Whitlam’s state funeral is probably about as close as we’ll ever get – and I doubt even a new constitution or preamble for an Australian republic would mention social security as the French constitution does. Yet the basic features of the Australian model – universal, flat-rate and income-tested benefits financed from consolidated taxation revenue – means that reforms have the potential to affect all of us, making the entire electorate a pervasive interest group, an effect reinforced by compulsory voting. In an era of small government, social security has come to the fore as one of the key areas of political responsibility. This may in some cases limit the scope for reform, as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey found out, but governments willing to introduce evidence-based reform may well find themselves rewarded by voters.

In France, by contrast, the social security system presents a far more complex picture. Payments are often set as a percentage of past income, and eligibility for pensions is linked to years of workforce participation. The state is not directly responsible for running the system, which is administered through separate bodies – think of the Australian superannuation system. As social security’s share of the national budget has increased, its financing has become subject to creative accounting, which has only served to make the system more opaque.

While everybody furiously agrees on the importance of social security reform, that reform has proved incredibly difficult over the years, a situation not helped by the division of power. France abandoned elections for social security boards in the 1960s and only reintroduced them on one occasion in the early 1980s, but responsibility for social security is still shared between an executive, which doesn’t sit in parliament, and the different levels of government. This makes reform difficult – a point underlined by the fact that French social security reform has often proceeded by presidential decree rather than parliamentary process. The 1945 legislation, enacted before the first parliament of the postwar republic met, is a case in point. Yet still French politicians emphasise a democratic dimension of the system.

The day was brought to a close by president François Hollande, who delivered a highly polished but on the whole uninspiring speech. The silhouettes of people hoping to jump the cloakroom cue became more numerous as his peroration turned into an awkward meditation on progress. Then there was applause and the rest of us filed out of the auditorium and into a street blocked off by the heavy police presence accompanying the president. I weaved my way through the barricades and away from the building before too many people had the time to light up. •