What's Wrong with the Fighting French?

These French strikes are far less about two years of retirement and far more about preserving an infrastructure of social benefits that are sacrosanct to the French and the bedrock of their culture.
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Here we are again, confronted with familiar scenes: millions of angry French people striking en masse and paralyzing a nation in protest against reforms that are unthinkable in the United States. Raise the retirement age from 60 to 62? In America the standard retirement age is creeping up to 67, and many are still boxing groceries and working nine to five well into their seventies. What's the big deal in France?

The big deal is this: These strikes are far less about two years of retirement and far more about preserving an infrastructure of social benefits that are sacrosanct to the French. That's why so many young people are taking to the streets, even if retirement looms decades ahead of them. There's a deeply ingrained fear in France that Sarkozy's retirement reforms are just one step in a process that will dismantle their social system and turn the benefits they consider basic human rights into privileges only the wealthy can afford. What kind of "basic human rights" am I talking about? Free (and excellent) education. Affordable healthcare. Weeks of paid vacation no matter what your rank or social status (without having to clock in a decade of work). And, among other things, the right, not the privilege, to retire comfortably and avoid the dismal, financially-fraught downward spiral we often see in America among those without the good fortune of having paid into a comfortable retirement plan.

There's a deeply held conviction in France, a conviction both political and cultural, that having a life is as important as making a living. This conviction is the basis for many long-standing misconceptions about France and its system of social benefits. Take the recent New York Times article by Katrin Bennhold, "Where Having It All Doesn't Mean Having Equality." Bennhold begins her piece talking about perineal therapy (a form of post-natal vaginal therapy given to French women to strengthen their vaginal walls after birth). Bennhold quotes a French physiotherapist who remarks that the goal of perineal sessions is to help French women get back to "making love again soon and making more babies." Bennhold then uses this as a point-of-departure to critique French feminism and its social gains.

I'm not sure how Bennhold stumbled on this one particular French physiotherapist. Personally, I gave birth to two children in France and was given perineal therapy as part of standard post-natal care. I was never told about "making love again and having babies"; rather, I was told that this therapy, covered by my French social benefits, would prevent incontinence and other gynecological health hazards that come with age. This was one of many maternity benefits I enjoyed in France -- benefits that should be provided to women the world over.

To her credit, Bennhold later concedes that perineal therapy in France is, in fact, for incontinence and organ descent -- though she still adds emphatically "and to improve sex," as if this side benefit were salacious enough to discredit the legitimacy of perineal therapy as a health benefit worthy of social coverage. (Curiously, Bennhold refers to perineal therapy as "vaginal gymnastics.") That said, I could have stomached Bennhold's misconceptions and vaguely puritanical air were it not for her sweeping and commonplace throw-away statement: "French women appear to worry about being feminine, not feminist." Excusez-moi? Bennhold blithely dismisses generations of feminism that, while not as militant as American feminism, have nonetheless secured for French women basic rights that American women have to pay for -- and lavishly -- if they can afford them at all.

Here we're back to the heart of French protests dominating news headlines: What we Americans consider privileges the French consider basic human rights, retiring in relative comfort being just one of them. Millions of those French women presumably too worried about "being feminine, not feminist" are out there pounding the pavement in their high heels at this very moment to crusade for rights that benefit them not only as French citizens, but as women.

Equality is hard won for everyone all over the world, and the economic crisis that has a vice grip on our planet threatens to undermine more than just retirement. A two-year dip in retirement benefits might very well be a bitter pill the French must swallow to preserve their overall long-term benefits. That said, for now millions of them -- men and women, young and old alike -- are willing to take to the streets and fight.