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My wife Jeanette is from France and it has been a great pleasure over the years to discover that country through her eyes and to get to know her family. This year, at the start of the autumn holidays, we drive down to Lyon with the children to stay with Jeanette’s sister Marie and her husband Jean-Baptiste.

The drive is relaxing and we stop off in Luxembourg for petrol and in France for lunch, arriving in Lyon in time for dinner. Marie and her daughters are waiting at the door of their house when we arrive. She is a teacher and Jean-Baptiste is the human resources director of a large pharmaceutical company in Lyon, commuting to Paris for two or three days each week.

Marie is a great cook and the Bourgogne wine we drink over dinner is delicious. Marie and Jean-Baptiste are fluent in English, so we switch between English and French at the table, discussing international politics, culture and, inevitably, pensions.

Marie has decided views: ‘It is terrible that people have to work for so long these days,’ she declares. ‘Older people are working too long, so they are burnt out and are not giving opportunities to younger people.’

Jean-Baptiste takes a practical perspective: ‘But as a country we simply cannot afford our comfortable life any longer. We need to adapt to different working patterns and I am sure that older people can contribute much to the workplace. You should not write people off just because they have passed a certain age.’

‘We need to create new jobs for the younger people,’ says Jeanette. ‘In the Netherlands they are much more practical about these things.’

‘I admire your French solidarity,’ I say, choosing my words carefully. ‘In the Netherlands young people are starting to dislike paying for the pensions of their parents’ generation when they do not trust the system to provide for them in the future. But they don’t do anything about it.’

‘Here in France there is a strike any time pension reforms are on the agenda,’ recalls Jean-Baptiste. ‘In the 1980s the left lowered the pension age, then in the 1990s Balladur rowed back but he couldn’t take on the public sector unions. We come back to the issue every few years but things don’t fundamentally change.

‘Everyone thinks they pay enough already in tax and social contributions, so you can’t convince people to save more for their retirement. Demand for our workplace pension scheme is rather low and I don’t see it picking up.’

‘Our staff members have no choice,’ I mention. ‘They have to pay into the pension fund and they all accept that, even if they don’t know what their eventual pension income will be.

‘Pieter,’ says Jean-Baptiste, ‘I’d trust you more than our president to pay my pension when that day comes.’ ‘Perhaps you should go into politics,’ says Marie.

Pieter Mullen is investment director at Wasserdicht Pension Funds

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