Only in France could a labor action sound like a tasty appetizer. They call it "escargot," but they're not referring to snails in a buttery/garlic sauce. No, this escargot refers to the practice of truckers who work in teams to snarl traffic by driving at a snail's pace. Infuriated drivers cannot get around them.
Those were among the milder tactics on display in France during the past week as more than a million Frenchmen (according to Interior Ministry estimates) engaged in strikes, demonstrations and protests that often turned violent. The streets have been thronged with the apparently always-summonable union workers and students. Fuel depots have been blockaded, leaving a third of the nation's gas stations empty. Motorcycles and cars have been torched, bus shelters smashed, and stores looted around the country (protesters presumably don't want to let a crisis go to waste). More than 1,400 arrests have been made over the past week, and 62 police have been injured. Trucks have blocked tunnels, and 69 ships sit at anchor in Marseilles harbor unable to dock due to the strike at oil terminals. Those aboard ship may be better off though, because the sanitation workers strike has caused stinking piles of trash to push skyward on Marseilles' streets.
This spectacle of French petulance is in response to the government's proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Life expectancy in France is 81 years. But that modest proposal (too modest, actually, as it will only buy France eight years before the pension system again plunges into insolvency) is enough to spark millions of cris de coeur. Work an extra two years? C'est insupportable! (Across the channel, the British are imposing deep benefit cuts without, so far, eliciting tantrums.)
Democrats in the United States must be wishing that their French brothers would pipe down, at least until after Nov. 2, because American voters may notice that everything the Democrats want for America is what France already has.
Years of socialist legislation have shackled France's economy and depressed growth. Between 1980 and 2000, only Greece and Germany grew more slowly (in Germany's case, reunification took its toll). French law mandates a "livable" minimum wage, with the result that jobs are comfortable for those who have them but often unobtainable for those who don't. Because the French also make it extremely difficult to fire people, employers are reluctant to hire. The unemployment rate hovers at around 10 percent. But for the young, the rate is closer to 25 percent. And for African and Arab immigrants, 50 percent is the norm.
The French government has an active "industrial policy," guiding "investment" in favored companies and industries. Employment is highly regulated. Until 2008, the government required that workers be asked to toil no more than 35 hours per week and guaranteed a month of paid vacation each year. The health care delivery system is public. And taxes are high -- a marginal rate of 50 percent -- among the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But France is deeply in debt and faces an aging population. In order to maintain its AAA bond rating, the French government is frantic to find economies. Thirty-five years of uninterrupted deficits have driven France's gross debt to 1.4 trillion euros, equivalent to about 86 percent of GDP, according to Bloomberg news. (We are not far behind, with debt equivalent to 67 percent of GDP.)
But all of those goodies distributed by the state -- all those free lunches -- have significantly corrupted France's civic culture to the point where any cut in benefits, even a trifling change in the retirement age, is violently resisted. One protester, Reuters reports, carried a sign reading, "To hell with the national debt! We'll give them nothing and we don't give a damn about their AAA." Those are socialism's spoiled brats.
What Democrats have most to fear is that American voters will perceive that, indignant denials notwithstanding, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Patty Murray, Joe Sestak, Barbara Boxer, Jerry Brown and the Democratic Party, in general, are indistinguishable from the socialist parties of Europe. With this difference: Where the Europeans are struggling to reverse their leftward lurch, the Democrats are accelerating ours.