Magazine article The Spectator

Cutting across the Channel

Magazine article The Spectator

Cutting across the Channel

Article excerpt

While it may be a little dangerous to speak so soon, a remarkable gulf is growing between the responses of the British and the French public to their governments' attempts to balance the books. In Britain, there has been a calm reaction to the cuts so far announced, with a clear majority supporting the government's bungled announcement that it is to restrict child benefit payments. In France, the only austerity measure to speak of is raising the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 - and it has brought protesters to the streets. Three million are on strike, with two thirds of the public supporting them.

It is that common French scene: bedlam.

Nicolas Sarkozy was, of course, always expected to confront the trade unions over economic reform. He was billed as a would-be French Thatcher, a free marketeer determined to reverse generations of dead-end protectionism. In the end he has seen all the protests, but none of the reform. The state continues to account for over half the French economy - as it does, now, in Britain.

But while we seek to reverse this, Sarkozy is compounding the problem by setting up a fund to increase government owned stakes in large companies. His resolve, of which we heard so much on his election in 2007, seems to be evaporating.

Even Sarkozy's controversial pension reforms are no more than a token gesture in cutting government spending. He has ruled out tax rises, saying, rightly, that his country already imposes the highest levies in the world. So there must be cuts. While France is notionally committed to halving its deficit within three years, the President has offered no strategy to achieve this.

The most likely scenario is that he does have proposals but dare not share them with his citizens, in case they start bringing the guillotine out of the museum.

Sarkozy is up against a public which is itself in denial on an almost Greek scale over the extent of the reforms that are required to keep a competitive economy. Chirac caved in to protesters over pensions in 1995, and the expectation is that Sarkozy - who faces re-election in 18 months - will do likewise.

A banner hanging in Paris this week sums up the sense of entitlement felt by too many French to a life of ease. It reads, 'We don't want to lose our lives by earning a living.'

The world is left to wonder what it is about the constitutions of the French that makes it perilous to their health to work to 62, when all around them are countries where people work to 65 and beyond. …

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