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Sharan Burrow

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Lost in Translation in Cannes

Posted: 11/04/11 10:38 AM ET

Cannes, the glamorous French Riviera resort town with its seasonal influx of movie stars and streets lined with mansions well past their glory, epitomizes the distance between the rich and poor.

It is a strangely apt venue for a conference to pull the global economy up by its bootstraps.
As the backdrop for the G20, it's the scene for the drama being played out between bankers and leaders in the back rooms of the G20 summit.

In this script, the needs of the real economy -- the reality that workers and employers inhabit -- are lost in translation for the wealthy financiers, who behind the scenes are lobbying global leaders to protect their casino privileges.

Labor unions are here, speed dating with head of states, arguing that it is workers with jobs who will drive the economy out of crisis, not the bankers.

But while we argue jobs are the priority, and they are largely in agreement, the expressions on the faces of world leaders reveal their fear of financial markets punishing their economies if they act to change the dominant economic orthodoxy.

The Greek tragedy is the prime example.

With an economy just 0.5% of the global economy, G20 nations could relieve the Greek debt, ring fence it to insulate the impact and allow it to rebuild demand, jobs and growth.

However it is easier to deny the anger of the Greek people and their right to have a say in the future of their nation and blame all and sundry ahead of the real possibility of a market backlash.

Its tiny economy, and the political overreaction to a referendum demonstrates that the real threat for the financial markets is sovereign power and the will of the people.

If you think the dominant orthodoxy -- shrink your economy, render workers jobless, impoverish families and still grow -- is an oxymoron ... then you would be right. But the markets are standing by their demand that the Greek people take their 'medicine' along with workers in many other nations

There are many leaders here in Cannes with much empathy with workers and a genuine concern to drive job-centered growth.

But if this G20 is considered a referendum between the real economy and the financial sector, there's a real risk the bankers will win.

Frankly the casinos in Cannes are better regulated than the bankers, but you can hear their screams at the very hint of constraint on speculative activity, all along the Croisette.

No single conversation as we speed date with world leaders can do justice to the pain workers around the global are feeling right now; to the burden they carry from the streets of Athens to the threatened factories of Asia to the growing unemployment lines of the USA.

The global debt crisis these leaders are here to manage is hitting ordinary working families around the world, they are losing their jobs, or worried they'll lose them next week.

As economists bandy about terms like recapitalization, credit lines and liquidity, families are facing brutal cuts to their social services and welfare payments, losing their homes, wondering how their kids will make their way in the world.

Within 24 hours the meeting will end and the press will duly report official outcomes, but if I was to play roulette while waiting for the verdict you would have to lay odds on the fact that the plea for serious funding for job centered growth, for financial regulation, for a financial transaction tax will indeed be lost in translation.

As they depart from the fairytale setting of Cannes, the challenge for all the leaders here is to listen to their people, to remember who they're accountable to.

This deep global instability has been caused by the reckless behavior of the same financial institutions who now want to dictate the terms of the global response.

It's time for governments start speaking the language of real people, who -- if given the opportunity of jobs -- are the ones who can really set world economies back on track.