French citizens should protest restrictions on freedom, not age limits

Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor Credit: Patrick Gage Kelley/Contributing Editor

France came to a standstill last week as a 24-hour strike shut down schools, offices, and even public transportation throughout the country. Nearly 1.1 million angry French citizens took to the streets. The reason for this discontent was a proposed government plan that would raise the retirement age by two years and change the current pension system.

Earlier this year, when the French government proposed a ban on face coverings, including the full Islamic veil, there was hardly any internal protest. The only form of protest apparent through news reports was when a small group of veil-wearing French women spoke to reporters about their views. Clearly, living a luxurious old age is more important than freedom of expression. Or at least a significant fraction of the French think so.

To us, the veil ban is a much more important issue than a slight increase in retirement age. The proposed veil ban angered a number of Muslims and non-Muslims across the world. While members of the Persian Gulf countries felt that the French policy regarding veils showed hostility towards Muslims, countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States also opposed the ban for its religious ramifications. Given the large-scale global disapproval of the veil ban, and the fact that France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, it is surprising that the French did not consider the ban important enough to protest about it.

Historically, the French have always been quick to raise their voice against unpopular government policies — protests in 1986 prevented the implementation of a university reform, those in 1993 prevented the restructuring of Air France’s staff, and those in 2005 prevented the school system from being reformed. In most previous cases, the opinion of the French people played a significant role in shaping the government’s final decisions. Now, as well, the large-scale French protests will probably cause the French government to reconsider its pension and retirement schemes. Had the French demonstrated against the veil ban, it probably would have had some impact on the final government decision. However, the law banning veils has now been passed in France, thought it still needs to be signed by President Sarkozy.

While the people of a democracy have the right to raise their voices against what they deem unjust, it is equally important for them to choose issues that are pertinent to the welfare of all the country’s people. But in this case, we believe that France has taken “welfare” too literally. France already has one of the lowest retirement ages in the world. Raising this limit from 60 to 62 will hardly destroy France’s history and culture. We wish that Americans were as publicly active as the French are, but not for the same trivial causes.