Monday, May 7, 2012

Socialism in One Country (At Least)

Yesterday's election results are quite troubling, in Greece. The extreme austerity program imposed by the euro zone and IMF is painful and may not be working, but the seven-way split of seats is going to make it very difficult to form a functional government at all. A racist fascist party that makes European far-right figures like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders look good made it into parliament. The old-school Communist Party is still there. Many analysts expect the divided result to lead to new elections in weeks, after no one gets paid next month. The chance of a Greek exit from the euro zone, and all that entails, just went up.

France, on the other hand, had a result to welcome. I have never been a hater of Nicolas Sarkozy, but his strong points (a good partner to the United States, Germany, Britain and others, indisputable energy, a reform agenda) were matched by serious negatives (implacable opposition to Turkey's integration into Europe, anti-immigrant populist posturing, continued failure to follow through, political tone-deafness which led to his deep unpopularity in France). Not long ago, on some level, I worried that his impending defeat at the hands of Socialist Francois Holland would upset the markets, reignite the euro crisis, and damage Barack Obama's chances of re-election - the most important of a host of significant elections. But ultimately, I concluded that a jolt to the austerity mantra of Angela Merkel, the ECB and the IMF was exactly what Europe needed, and that was most important at the moment.

Though the European social welfare state needs reform, it does not deserve the blame for an economic crisis that was caused by deregulation and the irresponsible behavior of the financial sector. But with Greece launching a succession of sovereign debt crises two years ago, a crisis of globalized free market capitalism became a crisis of what was left of the state in Europe. Neoliberalism, a cause of the crisis, was triumphing in continental Europe, that bastion of social democracy. Germany is largely to blame. As her mentor Helmut Kohl complained, Merkel is destroying Europe. There is no political leadership on positive further European integration such as Eurobonds and ECB purchases of government debt coming from Berlin, despite this being the only way out of the euro crisis other than at least partially breaking up the euro zone. Just strict fiscal discipline, with no room for "crass Keynesianism." And Sarkozy was not providing a counterbalance. He was the junior partner of Merkozy. As society suffers under austerity, you get results like in the Greek elections yesterday. Or the 6.4 million French voting for Le Pen in April. And desperate center-right politicians accommodating the far right to stay in power.

Francois Hollande has changed the conversation, even before his victory yesterday. Merkel and Mario Draghi are talking about the importance of growth, even if they have different ideas. The way forward will be difficult. President Hollande's agenda is even more intimidating than President Obama's was in January 2009, given the weaknesses of the French economy compared with the power of Germany and the markets. But his election is a good thing.

But that's enough of the economics - I was in France for the election yesterday as the Socialists celebrated their first presidential victory since 1988, in the left-leaning northern city of Lille (where Parti Socialiste chief Martine Aubry is mayor), a 35-minute TGV ride from Brussels. The city was fairly quiet during the day, except for the lively Wazemmes market, near which we discovered a polling station. We stood in line checking out the scene until someone told us we needed our blue cards to vote, then left the election to explore an art museum, the book market in the old bourse, the citadel, and the zoo (I mused that if the zoo had been somewhere in America, two weeks prior, I might well have run into a Campaigning Newt).

Around 5, we stopped for a drink at a bar with a TV and watched commentary about a good turnout. At 8, we were walking by another bar when I spotted Hollande's picture flashed on the screen and heard cheers. We entered and caught Sarkozy's concession speech, where his raucous crowd of supporters reminded me of those at John McCain's concession four years ago. After a nasty final stretch of campaign, both Sarkozy and Hollande were very gracious once the result was announced.

On the Place du General de Gaulle, the party had started. A crowd of a few hundred people gathered, waving posters of Hollande and flags - of France, of the Parti Socialiste, of the Hollande campaign, of Algeria. A congo line weaved through the crowd as dance music pumped out of a balcony above. I caught the scent of weed. Socialism is back, in one leading European country at least, and if it's hardly going to be a party over the next months and years at least it could be one on Sunday night.

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