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Austerity, French and British style

I have no idea if she knows what she’s talking about, but Anne Applebaum, a London-based columnist for The Washington Post, says the French and the British are living up to their national stereotypes in their respective reactions to their governments’ austerity plans: that is to say, the French are taking to the streets as they so often have done in the past, while the British “have stiffened their upper lips.”

Socialist Workers Party members in the UK will be pleased to know that Applebaum mentioned their newspaper while downplaying the British reaction to the government’s massive spending cuts.

After Osborne’s budget speech, protesters did gather here outside Downing Street. They looked suspiciously fringe, however, and many waved signs advertising the Socialist Worker, a newspaper nobody reads.

Finally, recognition in a major American newspaper! Well done, comrades.

From my perspective as an American, and from what I’ve been able to glean, the British have much more cause to be protesting than the French. Raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 doesn’t seem so intolerable, especially when people are living much longer and healthier lives than they once did. But Applebaum says the French reaction has a basis in other recent events:

For most of the past 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 voters object to being told they must work harder?

By contrast, the British budget cuts are being carried out by a recently elected government, one that hasn’t been in office long enough to be caught up in financial scandal. More important, it’s a coalition government, made up of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, two parties with very different voter bases. Conservative conservatives don’t like everything about this arrangement and neither do liberal Liberal Democrats. But the pool of people whose sympathies lie one way or another is much broader, and thus the number of people who will accept budget cuts — however resentfully — is broader, too.

As we Americans say: is Applebaum in the ballpark?