Foreign Affairs

Sustainability of the French Social Model

Environmentalists like to talk about sustainability, the conduction of agriculture and other activities so they may continue generation after generation, without destroying the resources on which they depend. A farming method that exhausts the soil over 25 years, rendering the land sterile for future generations, is irresponsible, they say.

Though much of what environmentalists claim is unsustainable actually isn’t, the central point is a valid one for anyone who cares deeply about the future of his community, his nation, and mankind itself. Just as man can now destroy global civilization in 20 minutes via nuclear holocaust, he can now destroy global civilization via other, more insidious methods.

One such method is one generation’s refusal to create the next. Current Western people are destroying Western Civilization by having fewer children than necessary to replace the population. It’s funny how much thought, press, and attention are paid to hypothetical methods of destruction of our civilization — terrorism, epidemic, nuclear war, global warming — but so little paid to one that is actually and indisputably happening. No demographer claims the Western birthrate is not below replacement level. And few people believe that most immigrant families in Europe are assimilating well.

Such an important self-destructive trend requires adjustment. Social models built on the supposition that the ratio of workers to retirees will remain constant must be readjusted when it is learned that instead, fewer workers will have to support far more retirees. Our own projected $80 trillion debt for Social Security and Medicare is due in large part to this change. Western Europe and Japan are much worse off than we are, yet have hardly begun to make adjustments for their aging futures — just like America.

Just as President Bush’s call for desperately-needed Social Security reform went unheeded last year, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s call earlier this year for the first major reform of France’s labor laws in decades fell on deaf ears, or rather fell on angry ears.

Students and others took to the streets, shutting down large sections of cities and disrupting daily life for millions of French citizens. De Villepin, after initially swearing to pass some version of his reform proposal, gave in to mob rule.

What got the young people so upset? A proposal to allow employers to fire workers under 26 years old up to two years after they are first hired.

The proposal’s supporters believed that a probationary period for new workers would encourage employers to hire more young people, whose unemployment rate is almost 25% in France (overall unemployment is at almost 10%, not too great either). Rioting Muslim youths last year may have prompted De Villepin to act. In some immigrant areas, the unemployment rate for young people is 50%, and French employers are especially reluctant to hire those of foreign extraction under current French labor law, which make firing anyone very difficult.

The young people protesting De Villepin’s idea could see the writing on the wall: They were expected to pay for the social benefits enjoyed by their parents and grandparents without receiving these benefits themselves. They knew De Villepin’s labor market reform was just the beginning. They are like the young men Churchill saw protesting for pacifism before World War II. “Poor boys,” he said. “They are going to die.”

England’s pacifists could not intimidate Hitler out of starting his war, and France’s protesters cannot produce the many billions of francs — euros now — it would take to preserve the vaunted French social model for themselves. The French social model is going to die.

In 2004, the comprehensive French social security system’s deficit hit Euro 13.2 billion (about $16.7 billion in today’s dollars), and all four divisions of the system lost money for the first time since its creation in 1945. France, like most nations in Western Europe, has all kinds of protections for her people, from lots of welfare for the able-bodied unemployed to socialist health care to generous pensions, not to mention a legally mandated minimum of five weeks of vacation a year and a 35-hour workweek. The retirement age is 60. This massive nanny state cannot survive the coming demographic winter, even though an exceptionally large number of immigrants has raised France’s fertility rate tremendously.

According to the United Nations Population Division (UNDP), the proportion of Frenchmen over 60 (retirement age) will go from 21% today to 33% in 2050. That means more than a 50% jump in the already enormous and deficit-provoking cost of taking care of French retirees. At the same time, those just entering or about to enter the workforce (those aged 15-24) will decline from 12.7% of the population to 11% — even with all the Muslim immigrants. France’s birthrate is about 1.8 children per woman, below the replacement rate of 2.1. Subtracting the fecundity of immigrants, France’s birthrate would be only around 1.2, the same as in Italy and Spain.

Of course, much could be done to improve the stability of the French social system. The retirement age could be raised to 70. Welfare for the able-bodied could be cut. Health care could be privatized while maintaining universal coverage through government subsidies. Vacation time could be reduced. And more taxpayers could be created by decreasing the 25% youth unemployment rate, thus lessening the French debt load now so that more money can be borrowed later when it’s really needed.

But far from preparing for the coming crunch, the French government can’t even loosen up the labor market just a little. Even American federal bureaucrats don’t get tenure until three years into the job. And public debt in France has been on the steady increase for years, rather than decreasing during these relatively fat years in anticipation of lean ones (sound familiar?). The New York Times reported March 28, “‘It is a collective failure of the French system,’ said Louis Chauvel, a sociologist who studies generational change. ‘You earn more doing nothing in retirement at the age of 60 to 65 than working full-time at the age of 35. And we have organized society so there is no room for new entrants.'”

France will need lots of new entrants soon. Immigrants aren’t working out. Instead, they proclaim their hatred for their adoptive country.

There is another solution: The French could start having lots of children, who would then enter the workforce in 20 years or so — about when the big crunch will come.

It’s that, or the end of the French’s beloved social model. You can’t live on borrowed time forever. It’s not sustainable.


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