The strikes in France today protesting raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 over an eight-year period have created a sort of Glenn Beck controversy: According to Le Monde, there’s a dispute over the size of the crowd. The Interior Ministry claims 1.12 million strikers took to the streets, while unions say the numbers were more than double that.
The strikes are a bid by the unions to exert enough muscle to actually pose a threat to the government, which has promised to ignore the strikes. France is broke, so there really are no policy options, and besides, so far, the French Left has proved itself to be annoying but toothless. Regional gains in the last election cycle may have given the Socialists some provincial city halls to run, but they didn’t give rise to a plausible presidential candidate who could face Sarko in 2012. Sarkozy may be more unpopular than ever, but he’ll look good compared to the Left’s same-old menu of potential candidates. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace for Republicans.
Like most EU countries, France is what you get after a half-century of stimulus-style spending on things like highways and trains — some great bridges, some overpriced toll roads, and the government as the biggest employer. Although more private-sector employees than usual joined the strike today, the bulk of the strikers are government employees protesting the same kind of necessary austerity that make Greek strikers toss bombs.
The Germans are very interested in all this. The Germans are the EU’s big wallet; the German economy is rebounding following their government’s refusal to play the stimulus card, and the retirement age there was just raised to 67, insuring a measure of financial health. The French retirement age, meanwhile, is the lowest in Europe, as the table on this BBC page shows. Asking German workers to help pay the freight for French retirees will be interesting.
There were also transit strikes in London by workers who said they feared changes in policies would mean worse service. The strikes did that job. A ComRes poll, reported by the BBC, says most Brits are sobering up, if only to the realization that there just isn’t enough state money around to float an early retirement.