I have a piece in the dead-tree TIME this week that looks at the election of François Hollande in France and connects it to the democratic revolt happening in Greece. What do they have in common? Both are reactions to the increasingly discredited — or at the very least disliked — austerity policies that have been put in place to fix the euro-zone crisis. That hasn’t happened yet — countries like Italy and Spain are in recession and nations like Greece are in worse straits. In fact, the one thing we know austerity causes is the end of political careers.
Nicolas Sarkozy could tell you that. Sarkozy was the Gallic half of Merkozy, his intra-European partnership with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkozy was the architect of European austerity policies that led to budget cuts and fiscal pain throughout much of Europe — and now Sarkozy has paid the price. French President-elect Hollande won less because of what he is, than what he isn’t. He isn’t Sarkozy, the temperamental conservative with the supermodel wife and ostentatious taste for wealth who polarized France during his five years in the Élysée Palace. And he isn’t a deficit hawk whose first instinct is to cut and then cut some more.
Hollande has promised to raise taxes on the rich and create thousands of state-sponsored jobs, all while reducing France’s $2.2 trillion debt. Pulling that off will be all but impossible — most analysts expect Hollande to back away from his boldest campaign pledges — but he may be able to nudge the resolute Merkel toward easing back on austerity. And he’d better, as I wrote in my piece. Europeans are not happy — and they’re expressing that unhappiness at the ballot box, from Britain to Italy to Greece:
But if democracy can be messy, it has the benefit of letting leaders know exactly how their citizens feel and how much they’re willing to bear. The antiausterity wave that helped elect Hollande and pulverized the Greek government is the sort of political siren that can’t be ignored. European voters are rejecting severe austerity not just because it’s painful but also because it isn’t working: borrowing costs remain high while economic prospects remain bleak for many of the euro zone’s weaker economies. Hollande may not be a forceful personality, but he is in a unique position to jolt Merkel into permitting a glimmer of stimulus — and hope as well. “People need to see that while the collective effort may be long and difficult, it’s going to be fair and involve everyone,” Hollande told TIME. And if Europe’s leaders can’t do that, Europe’s voters know what to do.
The euro-zone crisis is far from over, but this much is clear — the European public won’t stand for austerity much longer.