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Pork Politics

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Pork Politics

Why do French students want a lower retirement age? October 19, 2010

The nearest charcuterie to my house in France has a large model pig outside. It has a happy smile on its face, as if it can’t wait to be turned into ham. This makes me slightly uneasy as I buy my salade de museau de porc. What suffering, I wonder, goes into its production from which the smiling pig outside is designed to avert our thoughts?

I thought of the pig as I read recently in Le Monde that nearly one-fifth of French lycées, the best schools in the country, had gone on strike against the government’s modest proposal to raise the general retirement age from 60 to 62. The proposal is modest because, like most Western countries where democracy means offering the population something for nothing—or at least less than it costs—France confronts a serious problem of rising government debt. The government has managed to balance its budget only three times in the last 40 years—not, I think, what Keynes had in mind when extolling the virtues of fiscal stimulus.

The lycéens’ demonstrations against the increase in the retirement age seemed to me something of a failure of the Cartesian critical spirit on which the French pride themselves. (Philosophy is still taught to French pupils, not English ones, who are probably by now unreachable and unteachable.) Whose labor, after all, do these lycéens imagine will pay for all of the unfunded pension obligations of the French state, as pensioners live longer and longer? Where do they imagine the money will come from?

Of course, it’s possible that they feel such solidarity with the elderly that they are eager to labor for their ease and comfort, youth being supposedly the idealistic period of life. But somehow I doubt that such idealism is the explanation. What probably accounts for the strikes is a mixture of combativeness—the prejudice that being against something is inherently superior, morally speaking, to being for it—and a desire for a day off from school.

In other words, the pigs don’t really want to be turned into ham; they just want to pretend that they do.

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