Pensions in a time of kings

The idea of a ‘right to retirement’ dates back to the Ancien Régime, derived from the social expectations of its elites, and dependent upon the king’s authority. The French protest movement should take note.

The End of the Ancien Régime. The Great Fear. August 4, 1789
The End of the Ancien Régime. The Great Fear. August 4, 1789 Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

In recent decades, numerous attempts have been made to reform the French pension system. In 1995, 2003, 2010, 2013, and 2019, successive politicians risked citizens’ ire when attempting to raise the age for retirement. Emmanuel Macron, who suffered a first defeat on this issue before the pandemic, triggered article 49.3 of the Constitution in March 2023. This allows his reform bill to be passed through without a parliamentary vote. He is ready to hold fast.

Many commentators confronting Macron’s radical act, within France and without, seem to have lost – if they ever had – a sense of historical perspective. Though the French have raised the universal pension funded by the central state to the status of a common good, generous pensions have been antithetical to both the Republic’s governing practices and France’s popular traditions, and therefore difficult to achieve. This doesn’t mean that there’s no reason not to develop such a system, but it does suggest that the pension system the French (especially its young people) are inheriting is not necessarily the best (or least worst) version possible. Moreover, it forces France to reconsider pensions as a matter of personal responsibility as much as an unconditional right.

Surprisingly, the idea of a ‘right to retirement’ dates back to the Ancien Régime, derived from the social expectations of its elites, and dependent upon the king’s authority. Those who claimed it believed they could benefit from such a right thanks to their acquisition of advantageous material conditions and a sharp difference in life expectancies. Among the pensions funded by the king’s administration existed two main categories. The pensions de charge, given to civil and military officers of the king, was granted automatically at the end of their service. Other pensions were awarded arbitrarily, proof of the king’s gratitude, and dependent wholly on the largesse of royal power. The allocation of such a pension to a specific individual was a matter of custom only.

The administration of the Ancien Régime understood the law as empirical, fundamentally flexible, and grounded in personal trust, loyalty, and honour. Generally speaking, it was administered by a handful of senior civil servants (fermiers généraux), intendants, and ministers who were reluctant to regulate the behaviour of their employees, preferring to place their trust in personal, professional ethics. As a result, discipline was not enforced in a direct and explicit way. Rather, it obeyed the ‘impressioniste contours’ of a customary law system, which continues to puzzle those scholars who are prompt to classify a lack of transparency as a proof of tyrannical management.

In its first report, the Committee of Pensions, created after the Revolution by the National Assembly in January 1790, condemned the lack of ‘clarity’ and ‘simplicity’ within the king’s treasury. It argued that Louis XIV created a long-lasting ‘abuse’ when, on 30 December 1678, he took control of the Accounting Chamber. Yet by the end of the eighteenth-century, less than 0.1% of a total population of about 29 million benefitted from pensions.

The small number hid a more fundamental shift in the French power structure, which underpinned a progressive bureaucratisation of the pension system. Unexpectedly, the history of the Opéra (formally known as the Académie Royale de Musique), founded in 1669, offers an illuminating perspective on the evolution and challenges of a pension system. At first, it relied exclusively for its pensions on the crown’s administration. Their subsequent addition to the Opéra’s books, following Jean-Baptiste Lully’s death in 1687, put a dent in the budget of the institution that caused serial bankruptcies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. From 1713 onwards, after the ratification of the Opéra’s first official set of written rules, the institution reinforced its machinery. Records stated clearly all amounts, names, and dates, and Opéra’s owners pledged that payments wouldn’t suffer any delay. As administrative roles and layers multiplied, the level of surveillance naturally increased in order to check and process each employee’s pension rights.

The complexities of the administrative structure were buttressed by the shift of the Opéra’s ownership to the City of Paris in 1749. After a long process of subordination to the king (first enacted by Henry IV), the City Hall could no longer be described as a political and representative structure for Parisians, but a mere addition to the royal administration. Aldermen (échevins) working there were increasingly at odds with the rest of the Parisian nobility, as fewer of them engaged in any professional activities shared by other Parisian corps and cultivated instead a taste for bureaucracy for its own sake.

Opera singers understood the shift from a system of personal bounty, based on the king’s arbitrary benevolence, to a model where each and everyone could try to snatch more money for their own personal gains. Some could earn more, others could earn less. Some were actively prevented from retiring because their talents were still in need. Negotiation became the rule, rather than the default.

The modern French image of the pension as a universal right is relatively recent and largely ignores the challenges of administrative surveillance and economics that always accompanied the system’s development. During the nineteenth century, more widespread pension schemes remained largely private and were aimed primarily at managing pauperism. The state remained coy. Notions of fairness and restorative justice bloomed only once the Third Republic became predominantly left leaning in the late 1880s, and warily observed its German enemies’ initiatives. But even then, levels of discipline and patriotic discourse shaped the pensions as a duty to uphold – and not just a ‘right’. It was the Second World War that acted as a catalyst for casting the net much wider, with the installation in October 1945 of the system of social welfare still in place today. Though the French government extended this new universal right to all citizens. Many pensioners remain in a precarious situation and private systems step in when the state all too often fails.

Today, bins on fire have replaced a necessary and difficult dialogue, not just with the current government but with society as a whole, and with the past.


Lola Salem