Garbage piled up, airlines canceled flights, and gas stations ran dry across France, as workers railed against a modest change to the country's debt-ridden pension system: President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.
Sarkozy's plan came as the nation's mandatory, state-run pension system faces a budget shortfall that could reach $44 billion this year. The French president said that raising the retirement age in an already generous pension plan was a critical step to bridging the gap and bringing the country's ballooning deficit under control.
French unions balked, setting off weeks of protests and rolling strikes that crippled sanitation and transportation systems: Garbage collectors let trash pile high, airports canceled nearly a third of flights, and gas stations ran out of fuel. Truckers staged "escargot" protests: driving in packs-at a snail's pace-to snarl traffic. Some protests grew violent as youth clashed with police in several cities, throwing bottles and setting fires.
Sarkozy's unpalatable message to the French seemed straightforward: We're no different than other countries facing financial crises. Indeed, other European nations like Greece and Germany have launched economic austerity measures aimed at controlling their own financial woes.
But if the French must inevitably suffer the consequences that come with spending more money than they have, their reaction differs drastically from some of their European neighbors. During the same week that French protests flared, British Chancellor George Osborne introduced drastic measures to cut Britain's deficit: Osborne announced the nation's biggest spending cuts since World War II.
Those cuts will exceed $131 billion over the next five years and will cost some 490,000 public-sector jobs by 2015. But unlike France, mass protests didn't ensue in Britain as Osborne explained that cutting back was critical in a country where public spending accounts for nearly 50 percent of the economy: "Today is the day when Britain steps back from the brink, when we confront a decade of spending."
The chancellor hopes the measures will help narrow Britain's $243 billion budget deficit and will spur private-sector growth. "It's a hard road, but it leads to a better future," he said. "We are going to bring the years of ever-rising borrowing to an end. We are going to ensure, like every solvent household in the country, that what we buy, we can afford."
That's an unwelcome message back in France, where Sarkozy faced protesters accustomed to prevailing: In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac caved to similar protests against his plans to reform pensions. He never attempted to change the system again. Many political observers said the standoff between Sarkozy and protesters marked a critical test of the strength of his presidency.
The president and other French politicians predicted that protests would subside after a planned vote in Parliament in late October. But there was another reason they expected demonstrations to cool: That's the same week that many French workers go on vacation.