Europeans shift long-held view that social benefits are untouchable

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PARIS — From blanket health insurance to long vacations and early retirement, the cozy social benefits that have been a way of life in Western Europe since World War II increasingly appear to be luxuries the continent can no longer afford.

Particularly since the global economic crisis erupted in 2008, benefits have begun to stagnate or shrink in the face of exploding government deficits. In effect, the continent has reversed a half-century history of continual improvements that made Western Europe the envy of many and attracted millions of immigrants from less fortunate societies....

France, emblematic of Europe’s social advances, has considered a generous protection system part of the landscape ever since Charles de Gaulle embraced a program put forward by Communist resistance groups immediately after World War II. With subsequent additions under the Socialist Party’s two turns in power since then, including the 35-hour workweek and more vacation time, the welfare state has since been taken to a level that made this country the envy of many.

When the global crisis hit, the French social protection net — which helps push government expenditures to 54 percent of gross domestic product — cushioned people from the worst effects. But now, as Europe struggles to return to growth, conservatives in and outside the government have said the protections are threatening the health of public finances and holding back the economy.

Godet, the economist, calculated that with a legally mandated five weeks of vacation, national holidays and compensatory time off for working more than 35 hours, French workers and functionaries have accumulated 55 days a year in paid time off. Combined cleverly with “bridges” over workdays that fall between off days, he found, that in effect gives them a week off every month....

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