France elected François Hollande president of the Republic this past weekend, replacing Nicolas Sarkozy, in a contest that pitted against each other two very different ways of addressing the financial crisis that has plagued Europe, and the rest of the world, for the past several years. Sarkozy seemed to represent to the majority of French voters all that went wrong in the first place: the indifference and arrogance of the powerful and the moneyed over the lives of everyday working people. But Hollande, a Socialist in the classic French vein, has a Herculean task ahead of him. He will have to come up with some kind of plan that calms everybody down a bit, including those who voted for him in the first place, those who voted for Sarkozy (still some 48% of the French electorate), the Germans, the rest of Europe, the Americans, the markets, and just about everybody else in the world, it would seem. He’s going to be a busy man.
Greece, too, had something of a troubled weekend. The results there were not quite as clear-cut as in France, but still things got pretty badly shaken up. Given a parliamentary style of government, the winner of the majority of votes had three days to attempt to piece together a ruling coalition from among an enormously fractured and fractious bunch. That didn’t work, and so now others are trying, although with very little hope of succeeding. The Conservatives initially came up with the most votes, but even so that was a measly 20%. Their archenemies, the Socialists did even worse, getting less than 14%, a paltry amount given the former popularity of both parties. In the end, the basic message seems to have been the axiomatic: throw the bums out! Unfortunately, some of the bums are probably still going to have to attempt to work together to solve very basic problems, along with a few other parties now thrown into the mix. These others include the radical leftists (neo-communists?), who got over 16% of the vote, and those far-right anti-immigrant thugs, the so-called Golden Dawn Party, which came away with almost 7% of the vote. Add to all this muddle one other very important, if rather stark, item, namely, that it could also be said that one of the big losers this past weekend in Greece was none other than the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her politics of European austerity.
But why should we even care very much what happens on the other side of the Atlantic? Yes, of course, we all know that world markets are impossibly intermingled these days, and so from that point of view, if the thread breaks in Europe, the garment can quickly unravel in the United States, as well. So, there is that to keep in mind. And as a result, no one should be surprised that the markets have developed a serious case of the heebie-jeebbies. But aside from these considerations of intertwined markets, the basic politics of the situation in Europe may not be all that different from what’s playing out right here in our own backyard.
It’s probably unfair and maybe even a little dangerous to make too many one-for-one comparisons between Europe and the U.S., but, well, I’ll go ahead and make a few all the same. The first that occurs to me is the Sarkozy-Romney mix. I don’t mean so much in terms of personality (Sarkozy appears to have something of an annoyed, and annoying, Napoleon complex, while Romney goes for a well-scrubbed and over-starched Mr. Clean look). But each one champions the rich, and appears to be just fine with telling the rest of us to suck it up and act responsibly, the theory being that those tax breaks to the wealthy are somehow supposed to magically rescue the economy and create new jobs. How has that approach worked so far, Monsieur Sarkozy? France is weakened and teetering economically, and the jobless rate is well over 10%.
But still, let’s try to be fair about things. The French debt is totally out of hand, and laws that govern how companies can hire – and fire – people are hopelessly out of whack. Everybody is covered by a top-notch healthcare plan, toward which they pay very little at least in direct expenses, and come August, you will find très peu of the French still in Paris if you happen to visit, because they are all lounging à la plage. Their Greek counterparts were once able to boast similar amenities, but are now lucky to have a job of any kind, and even their once vaunted healthcare network is looking shakier and shakier. On top of all that, both countries made a choice years ago to be part of a Euro zone, and so the threads that bind them together – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer –are today far stronger than those which bind them to the rest of the world.
But the choices, if not the answers, for all of us appear in fact to be coming clearer. What really does any country do that finds itself overextended on the one hand, and underfunded on the other? The same case can be made right now to an extent here in the United States, as well. The reasons why this is happening depend on how you see things, that is, on your politics. On the overextension side of the equation, it has to do either with giving out too many handouts to a bunch of laggards, or possibly with having decided to wage endless wars for questionable reasons, while on the underfunding side, it would be because we’re giving too much to the little guy who doesn’t pay his own way or pull himself up high enough by his own bootstraps, or because of years of unwarranted and unwise cuts to the wealthiest of Americans in the dubious name of “stimulating the economy” (again, depending on your politics). These are all very familiar questions that we in this country have been grappling with for a long time, but they are beginning to sound all too familiar to our European cousins now, too.
Which ought we to choose, the approaches of Sarkozy-Romney, or of Hollande-Obama? Which will turn out to be the better choices to get us out of the ditch and back on to the road to prosperity? Do we cut, cut, cut, that is, taxes and services, or stimulate, stimulate, stimulate, in hopes of jump starting the economy? The French, and to a certain extent the Greeks, appear to be opting for the latter right now. Here in the U.S. we chose something along these lines four years ago, and – again depending on your politics – it either has, or it has not, worked.
Personally, I’m still putting my money (literally, I guess) on Mr. Obama. Just as if I were French, I no doubt would’ve voted for M. Hollande. If I were Greek, I don’t know what I’d do, maybe just head for the hills and hide out for the next couple of years. But what I really don’t get is the “all austerity, all the time” approach to economic crises. Sure, we have to save, and we have to act – and to spend – responsibly. No question, and no argument there. But countries get “better” economically through robust growth and expansion, as well as through austerity, and nobody, “no body,” ever got fatter by dieting.
It seems to me that what it will come down to in the end is some kind of a fair balance between the two extremes of austerity and stimulus. That’s what I think M. Holland will have to try to do in France. And that’s what Mr. Obama has attempted for the past four years, but that is not what M. Sarkozy has done, nor is it what Mr. Romney would do, if he could. So, I’m with the French on this one – je suis avec les Français! And OK, I’ll admit up front to being something of a Francophile. But you don’t have to sit down every morning to croissants and café au lait in order to know that both sides have got to compromise in order for us to get out of the mess we’re in.
So, finally, what I say is: vive la France, vivent les Etats-Unis, vive Monsieur Hollande, et vive Monsieur Obama. Oh, and yes, God help them all, vivent les pauvres Grecs, as well.