French citizens are taking to the streets in response to large cuts in social spending, most notably, an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62. Nicolas Sarkozy, like leaders in most of Europe, has pressed for these cuts as a response to both the recession and budget deficits.
And, as they have before, the French people are protesting in dramatic events, often organized by the large labor unions. In contrast to the generational resentment brewing in the United States, young people have been aggressive in protesting against the hike in retirement age; they say they want French seniors to retire and open jobs for the next generation.
Sixty-two, you’ll note, is the age at which Americans can retire and collect reduced Social Security benefits; the top level of benefits is available to Americans who retire at 70. And we know that life expectancy in the United States is about 2.5 years less than in France. But American seniors haven’t taken to the streets to advocate for themselves–at least not yet. Meanwhile, municipal workers in France have gone on strike; public transit has shut down and garbage is piling up in French cities.
Oddly, the French seniors have both a greater sense of entitlement and far less meaningful political access than their counterparts in the United States. American seniors, represented by very large and powerful groups like the AARP, protect what they have (especially Social Security and Medicare) throughvoting, campaign contributions, and lobbying. For the most part, the Americans don’t build broad alliances with youth or labor.
The whole system of interest groups makes reform in the United States exceptionally difficult; it’s far easier to stop something–anything–from happening than to promote policy change. And we don’t see those large and disruptive strikes.