France and Greece reject austerity
Terror struck the financial markets on Monday, writes Tim Arnot in Socialist Alternative. The Greek stock exchange plunged 8 percent. French stock markets fell by 1.5 percent. The Euro fell to a three-month low. This had ripple effects across the globe, with Japan’s Nikkei falling 3 percent and the ASX down 1.5 percent. What was the cause for such a crisis on the stock market? Democracy.
Sunday saw a significant defeat for the programme of austerity that has been ruining workers’ lives across Europe for the better part of three years now. Both in Greece and in France, people went to the polling booths to reject governments that have been the architects of austerity. This struck fear into the hearts of capitalists across the world.
The Greek elections in 2009 saw the conservatives turfed out in favour of the centre left Pasok party. Pasok won the election on an anti-austerity platform. Yet just weeks after their victory they began forcing through tough austerity measures.
This time around, Pasok has suffered a crippling defeat. Its share of the vote collapsed from around 44 percent to a little over 13 percent. The highest polling party of the elections, New Democracy (a conservative pro-austerity party that has been in coalition with Pasok for the last 6 months), took a battering as well. Its vote dropped from 34 percent to 19 percent.
Despite its victory, New Democracy has been unable to cobble together enough seats form a coalition government with anyone.
Syriza – “Coalition of the radical left” – is the standout of the Greek elections, increasing their vote from 5 percent to 17 percent. For the far left to outpoll the social democrats of Pasok is incredible, and illustrates the hatred now directed toward the parties that have overseen the crisis in Greek society.
Syriza has been centrally involved in the massive general strikes and street protests against austerity. During the campaign they campaigned hard against austerity. Significantly, they polled highest in the urban centres where there are large working class communities – the former strongholds of Pasok.
These election results represent something of a breakthrough in the long standoff in Greek politics. Until this point, despite the mass resentment and the spirited fightback on the streets, the far left did not appear to have made gains. These election results are a welcome development in the fight against austerity, and also present the far left with new challenges.
The conservative Nicholas Sarkozy governed France for the last 5 years. He has, along with Germany’s Angela Merkel, orchestrated the crippling austerity packages for the EU periphery. He is also a hard right anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-worker scumbag. In the run up to the election he attempted to whip up racism by freezing “illegal” immigration, scapegoating Muslims, and expelling Roma. He also lifted the age at which people are eligible for the pension, which sparked significant resistance from workers across the country.
Sarkozy was battered in the first round of the elections – the first incumbent to lose in over 50 years. In the second (final) round he was again defeated by Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party.
As significant as Hollande’s victory over a right wing government was the achievement of the Left Front coalition (which includes the French Communist Party and a leftwing split from the Socialist party). In the first round they won over 11 percent of the vote. They connected with the resistance and fightback of French workers through a campaign against austerity, demanding justice for the millions of workers forced to pay for the financial crisis and its aftermath.
The Left Front shifted the terrain of the elections. Hollande heads an establishment reformist parliamentary party. Under pressure from the Left Front and in the face of the abject failure of the austerity project throughout Europe, his campaign took on an anti-austerity overtone. He spoke of challenging Germany’s Angela Merkel and having the EU austerity measures re-negotiated on a platform of stimulus spending, rather than cost cutting. In his victory speech he referenced the wide scale support for challenging austerity: “In all the capitals … there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to finish with austerity.”
Domestically, he also pledged increased taxes on the rich, an end to privatisations, the creation of 60,000 teaching, a limit on rent rises, and the defence of public health. While no one should have illusions in Hollande, his victory represents something much larger than the Socialist Party’s programme: the spirit of people hoping and organising for an end to austerity.
If the elections in Greece and France are beacons for the anti-austerity majority across Europe, they are also warnings of what is to come.
The deepening social polarisation that has allowed space for the far left to get a hearing has also given room to the far right. In France the National Front polled 18 percent in the first round and is determined to use their seemingly increased legitimacy to make further electoral inroads. Sarkozy gave them cover with his vile racist scapegoating; they have now been able to push the debate on immigration and Muslims further to the right.
In Greece hardcore neo-Nazis of the Golden Dawn have won 6-7 percent of the vote and will gain around 19 seats in the parliament. Already they have used their victory as a launching pad for hate-filled speeches. As they continue to organise, we are likely to see more and more violent attacks against immigrants and the workers’ movement.
The parties tainted with the brush of austerity measures have been voted against en masse. And it is clear that the economic crisis is deepening in Europe. What happens next will be determined by the nature of the fightback in the workplaces and in the streets.