In her Washington Post column today, Anne Applebaum highlights some important differences between the sedate protests against spending cuts in the United Kingdom and the raucous street battles in France, where protestors have responded to an increase in retirement age from 60 to 62 (Sacrebleu!) by burning cars and shutting down fuel depots.
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 experience, too. Strikes, riots and street demonstrations led to political changes not only in 1789 but also in 1871, 1958 and many other times. 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.
True enough. But Applebaum misses a rather large point. Acknowledging that London also saw street protests, though with far fewer participants, she notes that they "looked suspiciously fringe, however, and many waved signs advertising the Socialist Worker, a newspaper nobody reads. " And this explains much of the difference between the two protests: In Britain, the fringe is still on the fringe. In France, it is unfortunately more mainstream—hence the need for massive spending cuts. Compare, for instance, the circulation of the Socialist Worker in the U.K. (8,000) to the communist daily in France, L'Humanite (figures range from 50-75,000) or the absence, thank god, of an English equivalent of popular anti-capitalist politician Olivier Besancenot.
Nor does the United Kingdom have a powerful union controlled by the extreme left. The 1984-85 miners' strike, led by the communist head of the National Union of Miners (NUM), Arthur Scargill, effectively broke the back of radical labor in Britain. (Recent revelations from Moscow and Stasi archives prove what many long suspected: NUM and Scargill solicited money from not just the Libyan dictatorship, but from East Germany and the Soviet Union.) And in France, Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), the second largest labor union, representing some 700,000 workers, has long been affiliated with the communist party and various other utopian left factions. Fun Friday fact: In 1945, the communist takeover of CGT so worried the anti-communist American Federation of Labor that the group opened offices in Europe to counteract Moscow's influence on unions across Western Europe.