Why do the French riot over budget cuts when the British don’t?

Part of the answer lies in historical experience. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the British, unlike Americans, have positive memories of wartime austerity and even rationing. More recently, Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 budget cuts heralded real reforms in Britain and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity. It is not unreasonable to imagine that these cuts will do the same. The French fondness for strikes is based on real experience, too. Strikes, riots, and street demonstrations led to real political changes, not only in 1789 but in 1871, 1958, and many other times, as well. Although they started over what seemed like trivial issues, the famous strikes of 1968 heralded real reforms in France and, eventually, a period of growth and prosperity.

There is an explanation to be found in current politics as well. For most of the last year, scandal has dominated the French media: Ministers who spend government money on expensive cigars and private jets, rich widows who misplace their Picassos and hide their money in tax shelters, accountants who stuff envelopes with cash for bribes. With politicians behaving like so many Marie Antoinettes, is it any wonder the voters object to being told they must now work harder?

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