At first blush it might seem a bit rich for Australians to be crying poor after choosing to retire on the other side of the world in France.
- Older Australians living in France are demanding a reciprocal age pension deal
- They’re lobbying Australian politicians and even French President Macron
- They want to claim age pensions in France, as Australians can do in 31 other countries
But a number of older, expatriate Australians are distressed to find they have no ongoing means to support themselves due to the lack of a social security agreement between Australia and France.
This is despite such a protocol existing between Australia and 31 other countries, including 21 in the European Union.
France has more than 40 such agreements in place.
But there is no deal with Australia, meaning eligible Australians living in France cannot claim an Australian age pension, even if they have spent their lives working and paying taxes in Australia.
Nor are there any current plans to seek a social security agreement with Paris.
“There are no active negotiations with France,” a Department of Social Services (DSS) spokesman told the ABC.
The lack of a bilateral social security agreement means that in order to apply for the Australian pension, Australians in France must either uproot and return to Australia or move to another European country which has a social security agreement with Australia.
‘Australians looking at a very uncertain future’
After working and paying taxes in Melbourne much of her adult life, Australian author Judy Crozier forged a new path for herself by moving to Béziers near the Languedoc coast in south-western France in 2015.
Ms Crozier, 66, sold everything she had so she could continue writing and seize some joie de vivre by retiring in France.
But she was horrified to learn there was no so-called “pension-portability” between Australia and France.
“It’s not something that’s made immediately obvious to us,” she said.
“Information online on this is very tucked away from sight … and then of course, when you read that so many countries have such an agreement with Australia, well, you make a very understandable assumption.”
Ms Crozier said it was astonishing that other countries including the USA, Japan and Canada, as well as European nations such as Germany, Italy, Greece and Spain have agreements with Australia, but France, Europe’s third most populous nation, does not.
For Australians like Ms Crozier, who didn’t see the fine print, or who moved to France because of family ties, romance or work, the lack of a pension portability agreement with France came as a rude shock.
It is difficult to quantify how many Australians are affected, but Ms Crozier said there were about 4,000 Australians resident in France, with a good proportion approaching retirement and pensionable age.
Nearly 300 have signed a petition to the Australian and French governments and 684 people have signed an Australian parliamentary petition.
Ms Crozier said like many others in a similar situation, she was rapidly draining her superannuation to keep afloat.
“My super is tiny, let me tell you,” Ms Crozier said.
“But my own circumstances, which are bad enough, are not as catastrophic as some.
‘Appalling’ there’s no bilateral social security agreement
Former Australian Ballet company dancer Maggi Sietsma is another Australian in France who was shocked to find she could not access an Australian age pension.
The 69-year-old has lived in a small village in the Occitanie region in the south of France for the past four years with her French-Australian husband, helping to care for her 92-year-old mother-in-law.
“I think the fact that the Australian and French governments do not have a bilateral social security agreement is appalling,” she said.
Ms Sietsma worked much of her adult life in Australia and toured the country and Asia, even dancing alongside greats such as Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn.
But retirement in France without access to an age pension is promising to be far less glamourous.
“With our income dwindling, I was horrified to find that despite working for 35 years in Australia, founding a professional contemporary dance company and providing employment for artists and arts workers, receiving awards and accolades for my contribution to education, the performing arts and society, being honoured with an AM for services to dance, I am ineligible to apply for an Australian age pension in France,” she said.
“Our only option it seems is to move to Spain, Italy or elsewhere in the European Union where Australian pensioners are eligible to apply and receive their pensions.
“But it’s not currently an option at all with my mother-in-law.
“With COVID-19 still raging in Europe, no one is able to travel and borders are closed except for urgent reasons.
Relentless campaigning might be about to pay off
Rather than ease into retirement, Ms Crozier and others are now in the vanguard of a movement of older expatriates lobbying the Australian government to act.
They have written to the Australian ambassador at the embassy in Paris, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs and even French President Emmanuel Macron.
“I understand talks were begun at one stage years ago, but abandoned,” Ms Crozier said.
“We don’t know why, but we know it’s a process that’s been followed successfully with other countries … Estonia was the last to come online with an agreement, just in 2019.
After many years of letter-writing and lobbying, the group had a small breakthrough late last week.
Tasmanian Senator Eric Abetz wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston asking them to investigate.
Senator Abetz said he asked the ministers what could “be done to alleviate the problem”.
“Australia has social security agreements with 31 countries worldwide and 21 in the EU, which permits Australians to apply for their pensions from their countries of residence,” he said.
“Australia and France enjoy strong bilateral ties, and this is an area that our strong relationship with one another can work to bring positive outcomes for both our citizens.”
The Senator said he was the deputy chair of a Senate inquiry that examined opportunities for strengthening Australia’s relations with France.
“I therefore have a great interest in this area,” he said.
Senator Payne’s office did not respond to questions from the ABC about the minister’s response to the issues raised by Senator Abetz.
Meanwhile, as the expat group in France waits in hope for government action, they were keen to remind authorities to appreciate the benefits of a reciprocal agreement with France.
“I would like to say to the Australian government that all we are asking is to be treated equally. That is, in the same way as all the Australians living in 21 other EU countries,” Ms Sietsma said.
“Also, if we were living in Australia it would be costing the Australian government far more — in terms of medical or other additional benefits that we would be eligible for — than paying us our basic pension here.”