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What France’s Pension Protests Mean For Americans

Americans may still have time to reverse course if they learn from the mistakes the French have made on unfunded retirement programs.


As the Democrats push more spending in their new budget, Republicans in the House are having yet another debate about raising the debt ceiling. The topic of the national debt tends to elicit shrugs and yawns from most Americans, but maintaining current spending levels carries enormous consequences for everyone. If anyone doubts this, they need only to look at France to see what awaits them in the near future.

Although most of the news on France has centered around President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China, there is something much more consequential happening back in his home country. For weeks now, millions of Frenchmen have protested Macron’s decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Hundreds of them have been injured or arrested, with some clashes escalating into riots. Many unions have struck in solidarity. Even for the French, for whom protesting and striking is something of a national pastime, the situation is dire.

There are a few ways to interpret this. For most conservatives, this is yet another opportunity to deride the French who seem allergic to hard work — just seven years ago protests erupted after Macron considered adding a few hours to the legally mandated 35-hour week. It doesn’t seem to occur to the French that retiring so early and living decades longer at the government’s expense is simply unsustainable. Moreover, this problem is exacerbated by a low birthrate that will result in a dwindling number of workers supporting an increasing number of retirees.

Those on the left have expressed more sympathy for the protesters since they are forced to work more years while the wealthy aren’t making any kind of sacrifice. True, the French retirement system may go insolvent at the current rate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Macron has to raise the retirement age. Instead, he could allocate more public funds to pensions, or he could raise taxes — at least on the wealthy since most of the French already pay exorbitant taxes. By raising the retirement age for employees, Macron is unfairly favoring the rich elites over the poor working class.

Then there are critics somewhere in the populist camp — a kind of middle ground between pro-market conservatives and pro-government leftists — who take issue with the way Macron is implementing these measures. Essentially, he circumvented any debate on the issue and forced these changes through an executive council. This kind of anti-democratic authoritarianism is becoming more common and will soon become the norm in generous welfare states going bankrupt. As writer Malcom Kyeyune recently argued in Compact, “If Macron senses that France is slowly becoming ungovernable without extraordinary — and politically dubious — executive measures, he probably isn’t wrong, and he is far from the only Western leader to face this quandary.”

Sadly, even though the French are understandably taking a stand once again, it’s unlikely that they will prevail this time. At best, they can delay the inevitable just a little while longer, at the cost of ruining their country with ongoing strikes, riots, and vandalism. Or they can face reality, accept the change, and move on.

One hopes the French would finally reconsider their trust in the government and seek out an alternative, but by now, too many of them have been conditioned into abject dependency. If Macron and his party are cutting entitlement spending, the most the French can think to do is gravitate to the politician (or more accurately, demagogue) who promises not to touch entitlements, like nationalist Marine Le Pen or socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon. As for the politicians who promise to reduce this dependency, restore freedoms, and make France great again, they will always lose. Such was the case with presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who couldn’t even make it to a runoff in the last election.

Parallels to the U.S.

Even though most Americans are tempted to treat this as a French problem, they should know this issue will be coming at them fast. American entitlement programs such as Social Security and an array of public pensions are already underfunded. Add to this devastating inflation, which will only continue as the federal government continues to spend beyond its means. Most middle-class workers probably know they won’t be able to live off Social Security and have some other plan for retirement, but all it would take is a market crash to ruin them. Are they ready to work another decade to avoid outright destitution?

Additionally, there are the same demographic concerns to worry about. The old will soon outnumber the young, as more people of childbearing years opt out of having children. Furthermore, there’s good reason to think these young people are not as interested in becoming workaholics as many Americans today. Indeed, it’s hard to blame them when older generations are screwing them over in a multitude of ways.

Learn from the French

Fortunately, Americans may still have time to reverse course if they learn from the mistakes of the French. First and foremost, they should not trust big government or big business to take care of them. Doing so only ensures profligate spending that enriches elites, further impoverishes the middle class, and leads to a culture of dependency and laziness.

Second, they should guard against Democrats’ and deep-state encroachments on constitutional rights and democratic norms. Unlike France, where state-run media and legal censorship shut down discussion and tell people how to vote, Americans still enjoy voicing their opinions and consuming alternative media — though this is under relentless attack in the social media age. Without a legitimate public square to debate different views, Americans will be reduced to protesting out on the street and striking like the French.

Similarly, the American constitutional system doesn’t allow for an executive to unilaterally make changes to things like Social Security — just ask George W. Bush — but, again, this could change. If President Joe Biden is allowed to forgive college debt with an executive order, this also means he can take away Americans’ retirement with the same mechanism.

Third, Americans will need to restore election integrity. Ironically, this is one area where the French do better than Americans. They don’t have vote-counting machines, early voting, mail-in ballots, or ballot harvesting. By contrast, American elites and political campaigns are able to exploit these many loopholes.

Retirement will become the issue that makes or breaks our democracy. The longer it goes unaddressed, the longer Americans will have to work before they will be able to retire. Worse still, they will have little recourse to reform a system that will force them to spend their final days on earth earning a paycheck instead of enjoying that season of life in peace.

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