The XX Factor

France Touches Its Third Rail

I biked around rural southern France recently, with a good friend who runs a small business in the U.S. We spent, literally, hours over the first two days marveling at the amenities France offers its rural citizens: high speed Internet in a town of 10 houses; paved roads to that same hamlet and to every single inhabited structure you can imagine (which made for fabulous biking); and neat sidewalks, curbs, and benches and modern infrastructure in every small town we went through. Truly, it was stunning. And then my friend reached for the check after dinner on our second night and actually spit out his drink. “My God,” he said, “look at the tax!” Well, exactly. (We’d been talking about France’s tax rates all along-it was seeing it in black and white that dropped my bud’s jaw.) In France, as in much of Western Europe, that is the deal: stratospherically high taxes and equally astonishing (to the American mind) benefits, the most sacrosanct of which is the retirement age, which, as far as French workers are concerned, they’ve paid for. The retirement age is France’s third rail-arguably even more so than Social Security in the U.S. It’s hard to imagine the kinds of strikes and demonstrations going on in France as a result of President Sarkozy’s plan to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 taking place here for anything short of tanking Social Security entirely. But Sarkozy is determined and has the necessary support to pass his amendment in the French Senate. “This reform is essential, and France is committed to it and will go ahead,” he declared Monday. Strikes or no strikes, protests, riots, and re-election be damned. (Sarkozy’s term ends in 2012.) Conservative voters and politicians love to malign France, a country of wimpy, Socialist, effeminate, cheese-eating French-speakers. As Glenn Beck is fond of saying, we’re not France yet! But we’re watching a French politician show a dedication and firmness to an idea and a campaign promise that is, at the moment, unimaginable in this country. Is it their parliamentary system, their longer terms, or just force of personality that makes Sarkozy able to damn these particular torpedos and go full speed ahead? I have no idea. But maybe even Beck could find something to admire in the French system after all.

Photograph of Nicolas Sarkozy by Getty Images.