Letter From Europe
More Than the Channel Divides Britain and France
By ALAN COWELL
Published: October 22, 2010
And so it was instructive this past week to observe the responses on both sides of the Channel to Europe’s economic malaise spreading like a dark fog occluding the future.
Faced with the prospect of a longer working life until a minimum retirement age of 62 (up from the current 60), a million French citizens took to the streets, as strikers closed refineries and blockaded fuel depots, leaving motorists to fume in line for gasoline and diesel.
But, confronting government measures promising not only a longer working life but 19 percent cuts in public spending, the loss of almost half a million public-sector jobs, steep reductions in welfare payments and five bleak years of austerity, the British barely seemed to blink.
That, of course, may change, as it did in the late 1970s when a previous generation of Britons struggled through the so-called winter of discontent. Strikes then were so widespread that garbage piled up outside homes, cemetery operators considered mass burials at sea (the gravediggers had downed shovels) and dark thoughts gathered in British hearts.
But since those days, a legacy of labor unions weakened by the Conservative Margaret Thatcher has dampened the appetite for the collective struggle still cherished in France.
“French people tend to like to demonstrate,” the French finance minister, Christine Lagarde, said when asked to compare French and British national reflexes.
Taking to the streets, some argue, is a rite of passage for the young and, for the older, a right at the heart of the French way of democracy since the toppling of the aristocracy in 1789.
“What’s at stake here is not the retirement age, or jobs for students, but the very nature of power in this country,” said Lucy Wadham, a British novelist and blogger living in France.
But that is not to say that the latest unrest is hewn from the same political flagstones as the revolutionary barricades of 1968 that defined an era: It is a cents-and-euros struggle to avert the inevitable moment when decades of cumulative benefits — from short work weeks to long vacations, from state health care to early retirement — begin to unravel.
As la retraite — retirement — so the nation.
“France’s problem is that, for too long, the economy has been run as a kind of job club for French workers,” said an editorial in The Spectator, a conservative British magazine. “Britain and France believe in liberty, but have different definitions of it.”
While the British believe in “liberty from government,” the editorial said, the French “still like the big state and squeal at the prospect of being removed from its teat.”
The French also pay higher club dues and expect commensurate rewards. French pensions can reach three-quarters of a working wage, compared with just over two-fifths in Britain. So, if French workers and teenagers strike over their pensions, there’s plenty to protest about.
The British do, of course, demonstrate. Protests spilling to violence changed the national course most notably in riots against Mrs. Thatcher’s poll tax in 1990. In 2000, truckers’ protests starved the entire country of fuel.
People turned out in huge numbers — and in vain — to protest the war in Iraq in 2003, when Tony Blair dispatched more than 40,000 Britons to fight alongside the Americans. Demonstrators confronted the police to rail against globalization at the Group of 20 summit meeting in London in 2009.
But the legacy is defined more by the weakening of protest than its vindication.
“There is growing bitterness and anger in England,” said Tariq Ali, once a firebrand on the barricades, in a posting on the Web site of The Guardian, a British newspaper. “The French epidemic could spread, but nothing will happen from above. Young and old fought Thatcher and lost. Her New Labour successors made sure that the defeats she inflicted were institutionalized.”
There may be a sense, too, that, as old Labourites like to insist, the Conservatives are up to old tricks to benefit the rich and trample the poor, to divide and rule.
Those imposing the cuts are largely from the private schools and top universities that have traditionally been the wellspring of the elite, cushioned by privately funded health care, schools, stock portfolios and pensions. Those feeling the pain, many economists argue, are those with the least access to privilege.
“We have seen people cheering the deepest cuts to public spending in living memory,” Alan Johnson, the opposition Labour finance spokesman, declared across the floor of Parliament. “For some members opposite, this is their ideological objective. Not all of them, but for many of them, this is what they came into politics for.”
If Britain falls prey to protest, there will be sharper overtones of class struggle than solidarity. Britain is a more divided society than France. Wealth is more ostentatious, poverty more visible. People in Britain have learned to have sharper elbows in pursuit of individual gain, while France prides itself on a broader concordat.
“Social confrontation is part of our democracy,” said Prime Minister François Fillon, “but social consensus is, as well.”
Of course, there is an inherent stoicism in Britain, woven into the Second World War spirit of bulldog resolve in the face of hardship. When suicide bombers attacked London in July 2005, killing 52 people, the response was not rage but quiet resolve.
“The British no longer do strikes, and certainly do not take to the streets in the same way as our confreres on the Continent. Or is that about to change?” the columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote in the leftist New Statesman. “We are now a nation divided. The ax has fallen. The bloodletting has begun.”
And, of course, a winter is approaching — if not of discontent, then certainly of cold comfort and complaint.