Hugo Christy doesn’t have to worry about his pension for 40 years. He hasn’t even started working yet. None of this has stopped the 21-year-old student from the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris from joining thousands of striking workers in mass protests against the French government’s pension reforms.
Rolling strikes and nationwide demonstrations against the move all but brought the country to its knees, as people from all walks of life decried the hike in the French age of retirement from 60 to 62, and the age for full state pension from 65 to 67. Last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy was forced to call in riot police, who used tear gas and batons to clear key fuel depots and get gas flowing to service stations—more than a quarter had run dry. Strikes shut Marseille’s docks, and left many of the southern port city’s sidewalks filled with rotting garbage. More than 300 high schools were blockaded, and streets from Paris to Nice were flooded with youth and workers carrying drums and bullhorns, chanting slogans, staging sit-ins, and singing the Internationale, the socialist anthem. Children as young as 10 demanded their government withdraw its reforms, suggesting either remarkable awareness, or some early instruction by their parents in the art of dissent.
“It’s a question of fairness, of social justice,” declares Christy, who studies urban planning and expects to enter the civil service when he graduates. Those who worked a tough job, like bus drivers and miners, he adds, should be allowed to retire even earlier than 60—anything less would be “unfair.” And he views benefits like five-week vacations, a 35-hour workweek and early retirement as a kind of birthright, much as Canadians might view universal public schooling. Despite numerous warnings that the country’s cushy pension scheme has become unsustainable, the majority of French citizens seem to share his view: polls suggest support for the protests tops 70 per cent, despite the fact the disruptions were costing the public treasury a half-billion euros per day.
To Denis Rivier, an electronic technician from the Loire Valley town of La Talaudière, even the slightest concession on those entitlements would be “catastrophic,” setting French workers on a path back to the Industrial Revolution. Working conditions at the factory where the 58-year-old repairs circuit boards have already “radically degraded,” he claims. Where once he worked on a flexible schedule—coming in between 7 and 9 a.m., and heading home anywhere from 4:30 to 7 p.m., so long as he put in seven hours—Rivier now has to work a set shift. “All the leeway I had to organize my work life disappeared,” he says, adding that his employer, in an apparent cost-cutting move, has removed lockers where workers once stored their lunches and pinned up family photos. “Misery,” he concludes, “is returning to the working class.”
To Canadian ears, such complaints sound absurd. Shift work during tough economic times? Better than no work at all. Retiring at 62? We wish. But Rivier’s outrage typifies a denial of economic reality among average Europeans that seems to be deepening as their governments hurtle toward the financial abyss. In the past four weeks, workers in no less than 12 European countries have staged crippling strikes or protests in response to austerity measures almost no one disputes are necessary to shore up their nations’ wobbly finances. France’s month of unrest, with the possibility of more strikes to come, has taken place despite warnings that the country’s 80 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio threatens its economic future. In Spain, where the annual deficit now stands at 11 per cent of GDP, a 24-hour general strike on Sept. 29 brought the country to a standstill, with more planned in protest of a labour reform bill tabled by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. In Italy, thousands joined a march in Rome organized by labour, while Britain faced a growing backlash to budget measures that would see nearly 500,000 civil servants axed from the public payroll: an Oct. 19 protest against the cuts at Westminster came two weeks after rail workers staged a 24-hour strike over staffing levels that shut down London’s underground. This despite a $250-billion deficit in Britain that, measured against GDP, is third worst in the world.
All of this has taken place against the backdrop of Greece’s financial catastrophe—a lesson on the dangers of fiscal procrastination if ever there was one. Two weeks ago, striking civil servants in that country shut down schools and tax offices in an aftershock from violent spring demonstrations that saw rioters in Athens tear-gassed and three people killed by a Molotov cocktail. What the bureaucrats expected to accomplish wasn’t clear. Their country is unable to borrow on the open market, while a recent crackdown on tax evasion drew as much public anger as the government’s aggressive cost-cutting program. Even if their politicians wanted to keep paying civil servants, they couldn’t find the money.
The reaction has fuelled fears that desperately needed financial reforms will run up against a sort of collective blindness—a peculiarly European belief that the cherished welfare state could defy the cold math of weak economies and aging workforces. “To us, something like raising the retirement age seems like a pragmatic step,” says Timothy Smith, a history professor at Queen’s University and author of France in Crisis, a 2004 book arguing that the French model is collapsing. “But the French have invested so much hope and energy in their social welfare system that having to give any of that up provokes this sort of reaction,” he says. That reflex is born partly of genuine egalitarianism, he says, but it also reflects a long-standing suspicion of employment as an instrument of capitalism. “In France,” says Smith, “work is seen by many people as oppressive.”
The irony, of course, is that if you have a job, there are few better places to work than Western Europe. Consider France, where, weeks after giving birth, women are offered state-paid, one-on-one, extended courses in vaginal therapy. The training, known as la rééducation périnéale après accouchement, or “perineal retraining after childbirth,” includes a personal trainer known as a kinesitherapist, along with wands and electric devices meant to strengthen muscles in the birth canal. After vaginal re-education, French women are then offered extended courses in abdominal training, aimed at flattening their tummies. The state picks up the tab for that, too.
It’s the beginning of an exhaustive, heavily subsidized set of beneﬁts that carries through until a child reaches young adulthood—all in the name of encouraging French women to have children. The program begins with a birth or adoption bonus, a four-month paid maternity leave, plus a basic allowance. Laws allow a woman to opt not to work until her child is three, and guarantees her a full-time job on her return. At that point, the child is eligible for state-funded daycare, which runs to kindergarten, and every fall, parents receive a grant for every child they return to school, amounting to $420 for children over 11 this year. They also receive a housing benefit, tax benefits, and discounts on public transit, cultural events and shopping. In the summer, children are entitled to subsidized, full-day summer camps with activities like trips to the museum, farms and pools along with three square meals (and snacks). For some parents, daily fees for the camps start at as little as 65 cents.
Similar, if less extensive benefits prevail throughout the Continent, with each country adding its unique selection of perks. Ailing Greeks can tap a public insurance program for spa therapy, which aims to heal via “curing waters” or “aerotherapy,” which exposes patients to changes in atmospheric pressure. Pregnant Swedes are entitled to prenatal leave if they do work that can be considered physically demanding, while Germans who fall ill get domestic nurses if no one at home can provide them with attention and care.
You might think this sort of generosity would flag in a stagnant economy, but benefit-minded public officials remain emboldened. In April, the EU declared tourism to be a “human right,” meaning students, retirees and low-income earners would have their travel subsidized. Among other things, officials envisioned sending Greeks and Italians to England to tour “archaeological and industrial sites” such as shuttered mines, factories and power plants—and vice versa. The scheme was inspired by a European Parliament program that sends the children of Brussels Eurocrats to the Italian Alps on ski holidays and to summer camps in France, Malta, Germany and Brighton—all courtesy of EU taxpayers.
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