The economic troubles in Europe are leading to public unrest, as EU governments try to pare back their bloated public sectors, in some cases trimming wages and benefits, in others by delaying access to them. In France, plans to save the national pension system by raising the retirement age from 60 (!) to just 62 has lead to a massive strike of over one million people:
French strikers disrupted trains and planes, hospitals and mail delivery Tuesday amid massive street protests over plans to raise the retirement age. Across the English Channel, London subway workers unhappy with staff cuts walked off the job.
The protests look like the prelude to a season of strikes in Europe, from Spain to the Czech Republic, as heavily indebted governments cut costs and chip away at some cherished but costly benefits that underpin the European good life — a scaling-back process that has gained urgency with Greece’s euro110 billion ($140 billion) bailout.
In France, where people poured into the streets in 220 cities, setting off flares and beating drums, a banner in the southern port city of Marseille called for Europe-wide solidarity: “Let’s Refuse Austerity Plans!” The Interior Ministry said more than 1.1 million people demonstrated throughout France, while the CFDT union put the number at 2.5 million.
French protesters are angry about the government’s plan to do away with the near-sacred promise of retirement at 60, forcing people to work until 62 because they are living longer. The goal is to bring the money-draining pension system back into the black by 2018.
As debate on the subject opened in parliament, Labor Minister Eric Woerth said the plan was one “of courage and reason” and that it is the “duty of the state” to save the pension system. He has said the government won’t back down, no matter how big the protests.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon reminded the French that it could be worse: In nearly all European countries, the current debate is over raising the retirement age to 67 or 68, he said. Germany has decided to bump the retirement age from 65 to 67, for example, and the U.S. Social Security system is gradually raising the retirement age to 67.
That sense of perspective was missing from many of the French protests, where some slogans bordered on the hysterical. One sign in Paris showed a raised middle finger with the message: “Greetings from people who will die on the job.”
Nothing like Gallic hysterics, eh?
Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised at this: statist societies like France and much of the EU use ever-expanding government-provided benefits as bribes to buy social peace, making dependents out their citizens and, in effect, infantilizing them. It’s no wonder, then, that the public then throws a tantrum when the state is forced to cut back.
But before anyone indulges in some schadenfreude at French expense, bear in mind that President Obama and his progressive allies want to take us down this same statist, dependent, and infantilized social-democratic road. (And, to a lesser extent, big-government Republicans have been willing to accommodate them.) We’re already seeing that with the growth of public sector unions in the US and their outlandish benefits*.
While Europe seems to be in for a season of unrest, the problem isn’t yet so bad in the US and, importantly, many people agree that it is a problem in the first place. Hopefully we can make the necessary reforms before we have our own mass tantrums.
*(For the record, I’m a member of a quasi-public union, and apparently it’s one of the dumber ones; we’ve never received the over-the-top wages and benefits the other unions do. I tell ya, it ain’t fair…)
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)