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'Non' to constitution means 'oui' to decline
Scripps Howard News Service


May 31, 2005

If I were French, I might well have joined with that 55 percent of voters saying "non, non" to a 365-page European Union constitution that would further erode my nation's sovereignty and buttress an overbearing, centralized bureaucracy.

But then I would have to live with the knowledge that I just may have robbed my country of one of its last chances to continue to amount to something a decade or two down the road.

For the truth is that France is in decline and that the EU constitution, despite a list of faults that might take another 300-plus pages to enumerate, was a means of rescue. Its chief virtue was that it would have wedded France to greater market competitiveness in the global economy and started divorce proceedings against a welfare state that makes a prosperous French future highly unlikely.

Competitiveness? Ugh. Sounds like America, most French voters are said to have concluded, and anyway, they may have asked with assurance of an affirmative answer, "Don't we French folk have things pretty good right now?"

In some ways, they do. Those who have jobs have little risk of losing them, lots and lots of time off and pretty darned good pay, varied assessments report. But there's a 10.2 percent unemployment rate and a lousy record of creating new jobs. It's easy enough to see why: All the laws assuring workers of endless benefits and protections are disincentives for businesses to hire them.

The situation is going to get miserably worse because of France's aging population. Of course, France won't be alone in having to cope with the consequences or having more and more elderly people relative to the number of younger people. As I heard a cogent speaker say at a seminar at The Heritage Foundation, all developed countries are in serious trouble because of reduced birthrates and increased life expectancy.

Richard Jackson, who is a program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the percentage of the elderly in the industrialized nations will double over the next half century and that time is already running out to reshape a significant part of the welfare state, pay-as-you-go retirement systems whose costs will ultimately be an unsupportable burden on younger workers.

In France, though, the difficulties are not just steep, but represent a climb equivalent to Mount Everest. Jackson has written that three-fourths of French workers hang up their careers by the age of 60 and that their version of Social Security gives them about 70 percent or the pay they had before retiring. France, he says, has the most costly public pension system on the planet Earth, well beloved by all recipients.

And add in this datum, as reported by many sources: The French fertility rate is 1.8 children per couple, well below the parental replacement rate of 2.1, meaning that there will be seriously shrinking numbers of workers trying to produce the wealth necessary to keep Social Security going, not to mention the meeting of other needs.

As of now, said Jackson, many of the French refuse to believe what's coming their way. In 10 years, reality will have them by the throat and denial will be at an end.

In America, we should not be smug. Yes, out of 12 countries that Jackson listed, America was in the top three (along with Australia and Britain) and France in the bottom three (along with Italy and Spain) in likely ability to cope with aging populations. Among America's advantages is a fertility rate high enough to keep our population at its current numbers. Yet, consider the heated opposition to President Bush's wish to establish personal retirement accounts, which would begin a retreat from the pay-as-you-go system that Jackson has characterized as curbing savings, punishing work and providing a lousy return on investment.

The president also ran into angry opposition when he suggested indexing cost-of-living increases for those Social Security recipients who can best afford it to price rises instead of wage rises. For all its reluctance to reform, France has already done something very much like what Bush wants.

Maybe France will yet find its way, even having given the back of its hand to the EU constitution. I hope so. Although I am among those who have engaged in French bashing, I can't believe that an undependable ally will become more dependable when poorer and weaker. I also hope we can derive some lessons from France, understanding that our future could be equally gloomy if we refuse to adjust to changing circumstances.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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