Why are Britons taking spending cuts stoically while the French storm the barricades?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 21 2010 12:07 PM

Brits Stiffen Their Upper Lips, French Take to the Streets

In an age of globalization, national characteristics still shine through.

Protest. Click image to expand.
French protesters

LONDON—Half a million jobs will be lost. More than $130 billion in public spending will be cut. Payments of all kinds—to university students, to inhabitants of public housing, to the BBC—will be chopped, blocked, or frozen. Thus did Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne usher in what has been called "a sober decade" in Britain while the nation listened in stony silence.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, the French were loudly on strike. Or perhaps I should be more specific: The French remained on strike, having already been on strike for more than a week, blocking airports, trains, and refineries; shutting down everything from gas stations to colleges to schools. Thus did the French react to what their president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has called a "difficult, complex" decision to raise the national retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67.

And thus did everyone, amazingly, conform to national stereotypes. In an age of supposed globalization, when we are all allegedly becoming more alike—listening to the same American music, buying the same Chinese products—it is astonishing how absolutely British the British remain, and how thoroughly French are the French. Both countries are facing the need to change state spending patterns and cut budgets in order to cope with economic crisis. Faced with this challenge, the British have stiffened their upper lips—while the French have taken to the streets.

There were, it is true, some Brits behaving as if they were French, and vice versa. Following Osborne's budget speech, protesters did gather outside Downing Street in London. They looked suspiciously fringe, however, and many were waving signs advertising the Socialist Worker, a newspaper nobody reads. In France, meanwhile, polls indicate that some 70 percent of the French support the strikes, but fully 18 percent actively oppose them. One brave Frenchman even told a journalist that he agreed completely with President Sarkozy's pension reform. "We shouldn't think it's still acceptable to stop working at 60 years old—we should work until 65."

Most people did conform to the stereotype, however—so much so that an explanation is surely necessary. National character is not genetic, after all. Yet here are two nations acting like living caricatures of themselves.

Part of the answer lies in historical experience. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the British, unlike Americans, have positive memories of wartime austerity and even rationing. More recently, Margaret Thatcher's 1981 budget cuts heralded real reforms in Britain and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity. It is not unreasonable to imagine that these cuts will do the same. The French fondness for strikes is based on real experience, too. Strikes, riots, and street demonstrations led to real political changes, not only in 1789 but in 1871, 1958, and many other times, as well. Although they started over what seemed like trivial issues, the famous strikes of 1968 heralded real reforms in France and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity.

There is an explanation to be found in current politics as well. For most of the last year, scandal has dominated the French media: Ministers who spend government money on expensive cigars and private jets, rich widows who misplace their Picassos and hide their money in tax shelters, accountants who stuff envelopes with cash for bribes. With politicians behaving like so many Marie Antoinettes, is it any wonder the voters object to being told they must now work harder?

By contrast, the British budget cuts are being carried out by a recently elected government, one that hasn't been in office long enough to be caught up in financial scandal. More important, it's a coalition, made up of both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, two parties with very different voter bases. Conservative conservatives don't like everything about this arrangement, and neither do liberal Liberal Democrats. But the pool of people whose sympathies lie one way or another is much broader, and thus the number of people who will accept budget cuts—however resentfully—is broader, too.

Naturally, this doesn't mean the British reforms will succeed: Angry British voters might still chuck their ruling coalition out of office. Naturally, sullen French strikers might accept change as inevitable and go home. The counterrevolution has triumphed before in France, just as reforming governments have been chucked out in Britain. But until then—plus ça change. And every unhappy nation will go on being unhappy in its own way.

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