The Perverted Culture of the European Welfare State
MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Battling for benefits is a tradition in the Gilly family, passed from generation to generation — as it is for families across the country. And that goes some way toward explaining why the protests against plans to raise France’s retirement age have shown such determination and ferocity.Just savor, for a minute, how absurd this is. The French are proud of not working.
For Gilly and many other Frenchmen and women, social benefits such as long vacations, state-subsidized health care and early retirement are more than just luxuries: They’re seen as a birthright — an essential part of the identity of today’s France.
The protest against a government plan to raise the retirement age to 62 has special meaning for five members of the Eric Gilly clan who are demonstrating in the streets of Marseille.
“We want to stop working at 60 because it’s something our parents, our grandparents and even our great-grandparents fought for,” says Gilly, 50, a union representative at Saint-Pierre Cemetery, the largest in this bustling Mediterranean port city.
“And over the years ... you can see that we’re losing everything they fought for. And that’s unacceptable.”
In Marseille, strikes to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s planned retirement reform have shut down docks, left tons of garbage putrefying on sidewalks and drawn tens of thousands into the streets for each of six protest marches since early September.
Gilly, with huge drums strapped over his shoulders, led the parade for the Workers’ Force union Monday. His sister, two daughters and a nephew weren’t far behind.
“Unionism, it’s in the skin,” Gilly said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. “It’s more than a passion. When something is wrong or things aren’t right, they have to be changed.”
Retirement benefits are coveted, by some, perhaps even more than a higher salary, making the issue particularly sensitive. Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age hits a nerve deep in the French psyche.
They demand more and more benefits. But of course, they have to pay for those benefits.
The origin of the European welfare state was socialist politicians appealing to the working class, telling them (in effect) “vote us into power, and we will take money from the rich and give it to you.” The whole edifice, in other words, was built on the selfishness of socialist politicians and low income workers.
But of course, soon enough the bill has to be paid by ordinary workers. But the old notion that you can just make demands on government and get goodies for free persists.
The fundamental problem is that the culture of Europe is not rooted in capitalism, but in feudalism — as political scientist Louis Hartz famously insisted.
For peasants, bettering yourself by working harder just wasn’t possible. You only became better off by being given something — by the Lord of the Manor, or by the King, or by the parliament. It’s a culture of dependency, not of work, responsibility and achievement. It’s a backward culture, and part of the greatness of America is that we have resisted it.