The victory of François Hollande in the second round of the French presidential election, combined with a very strong showing for the leftwing anti-EU bailout Syriza party in Greece, has led some to believe that austerity Europe is coming to an end. In France, some believe that Hollande’s victory has “strong echoes of 1981”: the year François Mitterrand was elected. The elections on the 6th May were preceded by a series of reports suggesting that the austerity policies enshrined in the EU’s fiscal compact were increasingly seen as inadequate by those who had promoted them so vigorously only a year earlier. The head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, made a speech to the European Parliament where he explicitly called for a growth component to be added to the fiscal agreement – a proposal that was already at the heart of Hollande’s electoral programme.
Though the election results are significant, it would be wrong to suggest that this signals any definitive shifting of political tides. Firstly, what the French and Greek elections demonstrate more than anything is the strength of anti-incumbency feeling in Europe. Sarkozy was the 11th leader in Europe to lose his place at the head of government since the beginning of the economic and financial crisis of 2008. Anti-incumbency, however, is ideologically indeterminate. In Spain, it brought a rightwing party to power. In the UK it threw up an unhappy liberal-conservative coalition. In Greece, the election results point to a collapse in the basic contours of Greek political life but in a way that has swelled support for both the radical left and the radical right.
The dynamic is thus one of disintegration, with diverse ideological effects depending on the national circumstances. Current elections in Europe express frustration with existing governments more than the dawning of a new political moment. This was most evident in France: anti-Sarkozy feeling was the motif of the campaign. It was the building bloc for Hollande, who in many respects embodies the adage about “being in the right place at the right time”. And it galvanized an otherwise fissiparious left. The far left party, Front de Gauche, led by the charismatic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, told its supporters all to vote against Sarkozy in the second round. Mélenchon pointedly avoided mentioning the Socialist Party candidate by name. Much of the forward momentum for Hollande is thus really the flipside of a movement against Sarkozy. This suggests that Hollande may struggle to maintain momentum once he takes over the presidency and it makes the upcoming legislative elections much less of a shoe-in for the Socialists than we had come to expect.
A second reason is that there is no real intellectual alternative to austerity being pushed by these new leaders and parties. What might otherwise have been a great opportunity for genuine political renewal has in fact contributed little by way of new ideas. The socialist campaign in France was focused on Sarkozy’s record as president. Its own economic programme was far weaker. The main thrust was to halt reform at the domestic level, bringing things back to the status quo ante, and to kickstart growth at the European level by using the credit worthiness of Germany to fund a new round of government borrowing. Hollande himself did not contest the need for cuts in government spending, he merely disagreed on the timetable according to which the cuts should be made. What was left unaddressed was perhaps the major question of our time. Since the collapse of the postwar Keynesian consensus in the 1970s, European societies have relied on either public sector borrowing or on borrowing by private individuals in order to maintain their basic social contract. The crisis since 2008 has fundamentally challenged this model and yet no real alternative to it has emerged. New governments in Europe, including the French Socialists, are relying on yet more borrowing to promote growth. This is not the end of austerity Europe so much as a continuation of the underlying trends that brought about the crisis in the first place.
Yesterday’s elections continue the theme of anti-incumbency sentiment in Europe. They do not signal a fundamental ideological shift as ideas do not emerge, readymade, out of frustration or dissatisfaction with existing governments. Judging the new arrivals by this standard, rather than just celebrating the exit of chastened leaders, there is little reason to celebrate.