A Tale of Two Elections

PARIS -- Watching the jubilation at the Place de la Bastille last night, where the Socialist candidate Francois Hollande was declared the next President of France precisely at 8:00 p.m., followed by delirious chants of "Sarkozy, c'est fini!" I couldn't help thinking of Grant Park, November '08.

I was thinking of the hopes and the huge intertwined challenges, economic and political; the immense power of entrenched elites to block real change; the inevitable letdown when a new, politically inexperienced leader cannot work miracles overnight.

Hollande's slogan was The Change is Now. We should be so lucky.

Here is some of what the new French President faces.

Europe is now falling into a double dip recession, where the economy of the European Union is actually shrinking. In France, growth is barely positive and unemployment is around 10 percent. But under the rules of the E.U. and the relentless attacks by speculators on the bonds of nations with large deficits, a single country is all but powerless to get a recovery going in one country.

Sarkozy lost for a variety of reasons, but a big one was that he widely and accurately was perceived as German Chancellor Angela Merkel's poodle, not a great symbol for a French president. France has an unfortunate history with the Germans, and Mrs. Merkel is the queen of austerity.

Merkel was behind the December 2011 fiscal pact that 25 of 27 EU leaders were induced to sign, committing each nation to deficit reduction in a worsening economy. (This has not yet been ratified.) She is the enforcer of the European Central Bank's rules that preclude real help for nations whose bonds are under attack. She is resisting any Europe-wide public investment or stimulus program on a scale that would make a difference.

Hollande has little power to alter these wider constraints. And absent fundamental change in the European ground rules and politics, he can't shift the French economy very much either. What he can do is change the conversation and the set of conventional assumptions about the medicine Europe needs.

His first pledge is to renegotiate the fiscal pact, setting up a confrontation with Merkel. She went out of her way to disrespect Hollande before the election, not only refusing to meet with him but discouraging other European leaders from extending that courtesy. She can't very well refuse a meeting now.

In fact, several other European leaders are getting fed up with Merkel's dominance including social-democratic heads of smaller nations such as Belgium, Denmark and Norway, as well as the more conservative leaders of Italy and Spain, which are reeling under the weight of recession and budget austerity. The other day, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, speaking at a forum with economist Joseph Stiglitz, let it drop that he and Obama had talked strategy about how to deal with Mrs. Merkel, and offered himself as a mediator between Hollande and Merkel.

Hollande will also propose a surtax on millionaires, whose value is mostly symbolic, since it won't produce the scale of revenue required to launch a major public investment initiative.

The comparison with Obama is all too instructive. Like Obama, Hollande inherits an
economic crisis not of his own making, but one that will soon be his. Like Obama, he faces both an oligarchy of bankers and a fierce set of political opponents determined to block his program. In Obama's case, the obstructionists have been the Republicans in Congress; in Hollande's, they are the conservative leaders of other European Union nations. Like Obama, he will have great difficulty producing change at a grand enough scale. And absent something close to a miracle, disillusion will soon follow.

The slightly hopeful news is that several other leaders will welcome a counterpoint to Merkel. Recessions, after all, destroy conservative incumbents as well as progressive ones. At the EU level, a senior commissioner, Olli Rehn, is already talking of loosening the fiscal screws.

In the headline to this post, I was thinking of two elections -- 2008 in America and 2012 in France -- but actually there are three more worth noting.

In France, parliamentary elections come later, in mid-June. Hollande has to win a working majority in the Chamber of Deputies in order to appoint a Socialist prime minister and effectively govern. If conservatives win the parliamentary elections, or if the far right and far left make major gains so that Hollande ends up governing in coalition with Sarkozy's UMP party, he is stymied before he starts.

Another fateful European election was held Sunday, in Greece. And there, in more intense form, we see the bitter political fruit of deeper austerity.

In Greece, citizen protest fragmented to the far right and the far left, to the point where an effective progressive government is impossible. The center-left and center-right parties that reluctantly went along with the insane demands of European bailout in exchange for austerity, got less than 35 percent of the popular vote. They are projected to get 153 seats in the 300 seat parliament, making a very weak centrist coalition under center-right leadership barely possible. But this is precisely the acquiescence in austerity that 65 percent of the voters rejected.

And in Germany, where a Social Democrat-Green coalition in next year's election could provide a fitting German partner to French President Hollande, a new anti-politics protest party called the Pirates is now polling around 8 percent of the vote. Under the German constitution, it takes a threshold of 5 percent to get representation in parliament. So if the Pirates get more than 5 percent, that draws off votes from the Social Democrats and the Greens -- and Merkel could stay in power. Talk about unintended consequences.

With the politics of protest leading to parliamentary fragmentation, gains for extremist and anti-politics parties, and deepening economic distress, the EU is beginning to resemble the political blockage of Weimar Germany. That did not end well.

In this worsening setting, one must wish Hollande courage, uncommon leadership, and luck. It was Napoleon who famously said, "Impossible is not a French word."
Let's hope.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a Senior Fellow at Demos. His latest book is "A Presidency in Peril."