What Budget-Cutting Measures Reveal About National Character

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Is there something to be learned in different countries' response to budget problems? Spending cuts in Britain have been tied to the building of a "Big Society." An attempt to raise the retirement age in France is meeting characteristically Gallic strikes. Meanwhile, the U.S. is mired in an economic debate over the merits of austerity. Comparisons are proving irresistible for a handful of commentators.

  • Tea and Baguettes  "It is astonishing how absolutely British the British remain and how thoroughly French are the French," comments The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum. "Both countries need to change state spending patterns and cut budgets to cope with economic crisis. Faced with this challenge, the British have stiffened their upper lips--while the French have taken to the streets." Of course, she points out this may be because the British "have positive memories of wartime austerity and even rationing," while cuts under Thatcher "heralded real reforms in Britain and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity." In other words: stiff upper lips have produced nice effects. That's true of striking in France, too: "although they started over what seemed like trivial issues, the famous strikes of 1968 heralded genuine reforms in France and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity." So perhaps the responses are conditioned.
  • 'National Stereotypes Might Hold True for the Moment,' says John Thornhill from the Financial Times, but "they may well not last." Though he blames "design flaws in France's ... democracy" for the prevalence of protests (the opposition is "denied much of a voice in France's weak parliament"), he thinks "sooner or later even the most revolutionary French diehards will be mugged by the reality of unsustainable public finances." Meanwhile, "even the most hard-hearted of Tory ideologues will be humbled by the human misery unleashed by the budget cuts." Countries do change, he notes:
Who would have thought that the heirs of Nelson would one day encourage the sons of Napoleon to land their fast jets on the Royal Navy's aircraft carriers because the cash-strapped British could no longer afford to buy such jets themselves?
  • Different Feelings About Government  Unlike the British, argues Alexander Chancellor in The Guardian, the French "are conditioned to distrust their ruling elite and think they are only living up to their finest national traditions when they are burning cars or throwing cobblestones at the police." He points out, though, that "according to opinion polls, a majority of French people actually accept that the retirement age must go up if the country is to be able to afford its generous state pension arrangements." It is Sarkozy's "high-handed manner" rather than his actual demand that may be provoking the reaction.
  • At Least the Europeans Get It  "The Europeans--or at least those in charge--understand the mess they've made of their economies." Conservative Jonah Goldberg at National Review marvels at the contrast:
The streets there are clogging with protestors who desperately want to keep perks and pensions that are driving their countries into insolvency, while responsible leaders do everything they can to impose fiscal sanity before everything comes crashing down. In America , protestors (a.k.a the Tea Parties) have taken to the streets to keep our irresponsible leaders from going in the same direction.
  • Maybe, Maybe Not  "France and Britain are offering blueprints for boldness," declares the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, speaking of the policies, "and cautionary tales for the political and economic risk it entails."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.