Europe’s new, suicidal normal
The world into which the new president of France, François Hollande, stepped this week is a suicidal one. Searching for a vivid image of Euro-desolation, the news media have lit upon suicides. Two suicides last month have stood out.
A 55-year-old man on the Italian island of Sardinia, who ran a little construction business with his sons in a mountain town called Mamoiada in the interior, killed himself when the business went bust. He was known only by the initials GM, and the town’s mayor says he was an industrious man with a close-knit family. His death shocked everyone.
Earlier in April, an older, Greek man, 77-year-old Dimitris Chrystoulas, a retired pharmacist, staged a more dramatic end to his life. Like GM, he said he wished to die with dignity; also like the Sardinian, he shot himself. But he did so in the central Syntagma Square in Athens, near the parliament, leaving a note that prophesied that the “traitors” who have brought Greece to destitution and enslavement to the will of international finance would be hung upside down in the square where he met his end, much like the way Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini was executed in Milan.
This is the Europe that Hollande is now partly in charge of, a Europe in which it is sometimes preferable to die than to live. He presents himself as a reassuring figure. He says his central concerns will be greater equality, and the youth. He’s stressed that he’s “normal,” which has been widely recognized as code for not being Nicolas Sarkozy, not having a celebrity wife and not having an addiction to wealth. It is true that he is a relief from the hyper-opportunism of the retiring president, who seemed willing, in the past few weeks, to be anything to anyone in his desperation to claw back the lead from Hollande.
He’s also more substantially reassuring because he’s a mainstream, center-left politician who has, on his telling of the story, always eschewed extremism. Although his doctor-father voted National Front, he has spoken of the pain of disagreeing fundamentally with one whom he loved. Yes, he has tacked left (he’s no stranger to opportunism himself), but most commentators don’t take that too seriously.
In Greece there is none of that moderation. The two centrist parties, New Democracy on the right and Pasok on the left, saw their share of the vote plummet. New Democracy remained the largest, with nearly 19 percent, but Pasok, at just over 13 percent, was pushed into third place by Syriza, a radical leftist group with Marxist leanings, which received almost 17 percent. The Communists did well too, with some 8 percent; and most alarming, the (very) far-right Golden Dawn party, which for 20 years has ventured deep into neo-Nazism and relishes street fighting with leftists, entered parliament with 7 percent of the vote, on a program of cleansing Greece of foreigners.
New Democracy may be able to cobble together a non-extremist coalition once more. But its mandate for further cuts and reforms, demanded by a European Union led by Germany, is terribly damaged. For the hard-pressed moderates in Greece, the victory of Hollande in France is a rare shaft of light. He has pledged himself to argue for growth in Europe, insisting that austerity alone is self-defeating. Unlike little and broke Greece, Germany’s indispensable partner, France, may have the clout to obtain relief for the screaming economies of the south.
Germany has the money. And there have been signals – from Chancellor Angela Merkel, from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi and most recently from European Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn – that the corset might be loosened somewhat. “The stability and growth pact is not stupid,” Rhen said encouragingly in Brussels over the weekend.
But Germany is not likely to be generous. France had a €70 billion ($91 billion) trade deficit last year and has a debt of €1.7 trillion. It lost its triple-A rating earlier this year. It also has 10 percent unemployment and rising; and in the first round of the presidential elections, some 30 percent of the French votes were for the extreme right or left. France’s clout is limited. Hollande has won a famous victory, but he has inherited a vastly difficult state. It needs to grow – and it needs to shrink a government that spends 54 percent of GDP.
The only way France – and all the other European countries struggling to grow, hold down unemployment, pay off debts and return to “normality” – is going to right itself is through reform. It needs to reform the banking system, which most people don’t care about, and reform labor and welfare, which people do. Reforming labor has meant and will still mean working harder, more productively, more flexibly, and, in many cases, more cheaply. Reform of welfare means lower benefits, available later. On second thought, this is not quite “normality.” Europe has been accustomed, for decades, to believe that things can and do – in the main – only get better.
This is instead the new normal, the politics of things getting worse. Politicians, whom most of us despise, have to guide our societies through this. We should hope they are as normal – and stay as normal – as Hollande, and share his dislike of extremism. And we need them to do that while also being abnormally skillful managing rising extremism at the same time. That will be some act.
PHOTO: François Hollande (C), Socialist Party candidate in the 2012 French presidential elections, kisses a woman as he visits a street market with his companion, Valerie Trierweiler (R), in Tulle, May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau