Europe in turmoil as France and Greece reject austerity

The French and Greek elections on Sunday were just a warning, Don Murray writes. What has become clear in Europe's austerity-driven crisis is that anger sparked by economic misery can turn to fury against the political system, and that fury can be vicious.

"Les carottes sont cuites" — the carrots are cooked. Not a call to a Michelin meal but to a political burial and a bitter stew that is still on the stove.

The words are those of France's outgoing prime minister, François Fillon, the second most important leader in the country, a man chosen by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

His remarks are the French culinary equivalent of the jig is up, and the verdict, uttered more than two weeks ago, suggests that Sarkozy's team knew long before Sunday night what to expect.

In losing to the Socialist leader François Hollande, Sarkozy narrowly avoided an ignominious new record — that of being the shortest-serving French president in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Georges Pompidou still holds it, but Pompidou left office in a coffin, dead of cancer a month short of five years in office. He was popular and was mourned. Sarkozy wasn't and won't be.

But the French vote was not just a verdict on the overdone Sarkozy as all over Europe the carrots are cooking.

The French election is over. Hollande beat Sarkozy. The hard part begins. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

In Greece there was an even angrier general election on Sunday in which the two main coalition parties, the ones who have been championing the euro rescue and the forced march to austerity, picked up barely a third of the votes.

In Spain there is mass unemployment and almost weekly demonstrations. In the Netherlands there will be an election but only in September, though the government resigned in April.

What links all these events is "Europe." That is to say the Europe of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Europe of German finger-wagging, painful belt-tightening and of cuts and calls for even more cuts.

In a ring of countries around Germany, what began as sullen compliance with the proffered realities of the financial markets has boiled up into a bitter political stew with several chunks clearly too indigestible for the voters of the European Union.

The Merkel approach

In his campaign, France's Hollande took direct aim at the so-called "Merkozy" approach to European economics.

This should more correctly be called the Merkel approach, to which the flailing Nicolas Sarkozy was joined at the hip.

The Merkel approach is simple: cut your spending so that your government deficit is no more than three per cent of national output. That way you will be able to gradually lower your national debt, thus saving Germany the enormous bother of bailing out your government and your banks.

Earlier this year, 25 of the 27 European Union countries signed that deal. Only Britain and the Czech Republic opted out. But then Hollande said he, as French president, would insist on rewriting it.

It wasn't austerity, he said, but growth that Europe needed.

Hollande's challenge

Hollande's audacity was first greeted with anger and derision. The anger was Merkel's, the derision Sarkozy's.

Merkel was so angry that she flew to Paris in February to campaign in a joint interview with Sarkozy against Hollande. At the time, her advisers let it drop that she would refuse even to speak to Hollande before the election.

As for Sarkozy, he dismissed his opponent as an economic naïf.

The trouble was, the Merkozy measures were causing havoc right across Europe.

In Greece, German-imposed austerity, as it is commonly called, provoked an already recession-mired economy into freefall.

Tax raises and wage cuts led to a 20 per cent drop in the country's output. Unemployment stands officially at 21 per cent and unofficially at close to a third of the workforce.

Anger became the dominant note of political speech. There were violent demonstrations in the streets, and the country's parliament in Athens became a besieged fortress.

In Sunday's elections, the far left and the neo-Nazi right made noticeable gains. The middle, as the poet said, could not hold.

A bitter stew

Austerity has already laid waste to other governments in Europe — notably in Spain, Ireland and Holland. And still the pain increases. Greeks face another $20 billion in mandated cuts.

Supporters of the extreme-right Golden Dawn party celebrate in Athens on Sunday. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

General unemployment in Spain stands at just under 25 per cent, youth unemployment at 45.

Those figures are higher than in North America during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the Netherlands, the coalition government collapsed when it tried to impose cuts of $18 billion to reduce the country's budget deficit from 4.6 per cent of GDP to the magical three per cent demanded by the European fiscal pact.

The Dutch, who saw themselves as among Europe's fiscal good guys, are reeling.

What has become clear in this austerity-driven crisis is that anger sparked by economic misery can turn to fury against the political system, and that fury can be vicious.

In Greece, the extremist parties on the far left and far right gathered more votes than the centre-left Pasok and the centre-right New Democracy parties, which have dominated the political scene for decades.

All of these hard-left and hard-right parties have fiercely criticized austerity and the European Union itself.

Greece's far-right Golden Dawn party has a program introduced by a Nazi salute and which includes a plank calling for all immigrants to be deported. (To drive its point home, the party sends out squads of young skinheads with clubs to charge onto buses and beat up anyone who looks foreign.)

It now looks like it might pick up about eight per cent of the vote whereas three years ago it barely won 20,000 votes in national elections.

In France, Sarkozy tried desperately to pull out a victory by outright calls to the far-right electorate, calls that suggested that France was a country of "frontiers" where outsiders would be treated as unwelcome. Those appeals did close the gap, but they weren't enough.

For the new French president, as for neighbouring leaders, the current austerity stew is bitter indeed and probably needs to be replaced with something more edible.

But at this point it is not at all clear just where they will find the recipe for their economies and for Europe that their voters might be prepared to stomach.