The European stock market had a rough weekend, after Greece failed to form a government, and France succeeded.
Greece became an electoral stalemate, in which no party had enough power to form a government. France chose socialist Francoise Hollande for president, prompting the UK Daily Mail to exclaim, “Au revoir, Sarkozy! Au revoir, austerity!”
There are always many factors influencing a major election, even if foreign observers and the latter drafts of history books conclude the election was “all about” one thing. With this caveat in mind, the French and Greek elections were “all about” austerity, or more precisely a public reaction against it. Ousted French president Nicolas Sarkozy was not far from Hollande in most other policy matters, but Hollande ran “on a platform of tearing up last December’s controversial deal to save the euro from oblivion,” as the Daily Mail puts it.
Given a choice between austerity and oblivion, the products of a multi-generational welfare state will choose oblivion, especially when they’re in an anti-incumbent mood – which was inflamed by the refusal of France’s other major contenders to get behind Sarkozy. He actually out-performed expectations and forced a run-off election, but centrist third-party candidate Francois Bayrou surprised many observers by declaring his support for Hollande. In France, the “centrists” usually throw their weight behind the incumbent, but Bayrou said Sarkozy’s attempt to court the “far-right” fourth party, the National Front, was “violent and in contradiction with our values, not just mine and the political movement I represent, but also those of [Charles de Gaulle] and the social, republican right.”
As for the National Front, its leader, Marine Le Pen, made headlines by snorting that she would leave her own ballot blank, because she couldn’t see enough of a difference between Sarkozy and Hollande. That’s an awful lot of dramatic posturing to cover what amounts to a national sigh of exhaustion, as an electoral hand fluttered blindly across France’s fiscal alarm clock and found the snooze bar.
Here’s how the BBC described Hollande’s platform, which should sound drearily familiar to Americans:
The Socialist candidate has promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than 1m euros a year.
He wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for some workers.
In other words, he’s going to “rescue” an insolvent government by spending a boatload of money, increasing welfare benefits, and taxing the cheese out of class-war enemies. It will fail, of course, and an even more weak and desperate France will soon find itself facing an even more horrifying plunge off a fiscal cliff, while the socialists concoct a fresh round of excuses for why the latest economy-crushing tax increases didn’t pull in enough revenue to cover those staggering government debts. They’ll express confidence that one more tax hike on whatever remains of French industry ought to do it, though!
Hollande actually promised to balance the budget in five years through tax increases, even as he throws out “austerity” measures and jacks up spending. The Western public is remarkably eager to swallow such pap, even though not a single example of such a program succeeding can ever be cited.
One reason is that class enemies targeted for punitive taxation embrace their fate about as eagerly as welfare dependents embrace austerity. Hollande wants to crank up taxes on the rich by a good 30 percent, and the rich have responded by suddenly developing a keen interest in moving to Switzerland… or perhaps even Britain, where a Tory member of parliament got in some hot water over the weekend by telling London to brace itself for a fresh tidal wave of French expatriates.
The sad thing is that France had not yet felt the bite of real “austerity.” Sarkozy was repudiated for implementing adjustments to his country’s welfare state that most Americans would consider extremely mild. When the French press calls him “center-right,” they mean slightly right of far to the left of anything we would describe as “centrist,” even three years after the American government seized control of the health insurance industry.
The sobering lesson to draw from Europe’s electoral freak-out is that austerity is far more difficult to impose than dependency. Dependency is built one program at a time, with soothing assurances that “someone else” will pay for everything. Left-wing social engineering weakens the population. When the money runs out, and all those unsustainable promises result in fiscal collapse, it becomes virtually impossible to sustain democratic support for the austerity measures necessary to change course.
The people who vote in the early stages of socialism never think about the bankrupt future they are creating, or the degraded grandchildren who will occupy it. They assume their descendants will simply vote to follow a different path, if profound difficulties arise. They don’t realize they’re making a left turn onto a one-way street that leads to a dead end… and the socialists don’t start talking about one-way “inevitable progress” until it’s far too late to turn around.
The further a nation sinks into the left-wing death spiral, the harder it becomes to change course. Greece was driven mad by the demand of austerity, leading to a chaotic environment in which one insurgent party, the Independent Greeks, scapegoates the fiscally prudent Germans as Nazis, and describes the European Union as the “Fourth Reich”… while another party adopted a symbol disturbingly reminiscent of the swastika, and is led by a man famous for throwing the Nazi salute after he won his first big election.
International dependency, provided through the European Union, only makes the situation worse, because it gives welfare-besotted electorates one more sugar daddy they can hit up for cash. The Germans marked Hollande’s election by announcing, through gritted teeth, that they won’t renegotiate budgetary discipline, or allow France to rack up more debt. Hollande will gamble that Germany has already worked furiously to keep the Euro alive, and won’t throw it away on a showdown with France when far more pressing crises are boiling over in countries like Spain and Greece. It’s essentially the same logic employed by beyond-bankrupt American states like California and Illinois. The powers-that-be won’t really let us fail, no matter how irresponsibly we behave… will they?
Hopefully, the American electorate is still just barely strong enough to resist the French socialist brand of snake oil. Early indications suggest it will not be a resounding refusal.