“Look at Greece…”

The riots in Greece last December are on their way to becoming one of the lasting symbols of the global recession, much in the way that «France 1968» captures the awakening of youth in that – other – eventful decade. Wherever tension rises due to economic hardship, governments tremble lest they have to deal with a rebellion like that of the Athenian youth. French President Nicolas Sarkozy appears to have this nightmare before him continually: First he froze his plans for education reform and now he is rushing to appease the workers and the unemployed of faraway Guadeloupe so as to prevent the troubles in the French Caribbean from spreading to the mainland. In Greece, we understand that the burning of Athens was the result of a toxic mix of social disobedience, tolerance of youth violence and state paralysis. The fact that our youth are not looking forward to a rosy future played a role in the rebellion, but was not the principal factor. Outside of Greece, however, the troubles in Greece were seen as an outburst of rage and despair because of economic hardship – which the whole of Europe had been dreading before December. Since then, we have seen troubles, strikes and government crises in many countries. In January, the government of Iceland fell, in the midst of public outrage. Last week, the government of Latvia followed suit. We have seen major strikes in Britain, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Lithuania, Montenegro and Russia. Almost every time, reports on these troubles refer to Athens as an early eruption of this social tension. Just how worried Europe is can be seen in an interview by one of Sarkozy’s chief aides, Henri Guaino, with Le Monde last Tuesday, as the French Caribbean was being rocked by violent protests. «If we do not agree on common rules of protection and (government) intervention, if we stay trapped in dogma, then we run the serious risk of absurd protectionism, populism and xenophobia. «We must take this risk very seriously. Look at what happened in Iceland, at the chasm that was created between the people and the government. Look at the strikes by British energy workers, strikes protesting the use of seasonal workers from Spain and Italy. Look at what happened in Greece. This crisis is exhausting all the chapters of economic practice. Let us take measures so that we do not exhaust the chapters of a history textbook as well,» Guaino said. In other words: We have exhausted all we know about economics, now we are afraid that the crisis will lead to unpredictable developments on the political and social level. Guadeloupe is especially interesting in that it is a possession of France and could easily transmit its tensions to the French «metropolis.» One of these dangers is that the uprising in the Caribbean raises the specter of a racial clash: Most of the islands’ blacks are poor, while the rich and those who run things are, for the most part, white. «A clique is in control of the economy and abuses this,» said Christiane Tobira, a deputy from the nearby territory of Guyana. She added that this was not far removed from «social apartheid.» One of the protesters’ slogans is: «Guadeloupe belongs to us, not to them,» meaning, of course, the whites. The protesters are demanding a raise of 200 euros on the minimum monthly wage of 900 euros (when in Greece the minimum wage is 701 euros). It is natural that governments should fear the tensions and unpredictable social consequences of economic hardship. The events of Athens showed what happens when a largely homogenous society cannot develop and cannot manage its inner tensions. Guadeloupe shows how easily complicated social tensions can come to the fore – tensions that can make society regress dangerously. It is clear that no country can be allowed to sink under its problems. The evil is contagious. This will play a role in the current effort by Europe’s strongest players to help the weaker ones. «Look at Greece,» they will say.