OPINION

Europe’s political laboratory

France has once more justified its reputation for being Europe’s political laboratory. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms have sparked off a tidal wave of popular protest and the people of France have taken to the streets in protest at the general plan to demolish their quality of life and challenge their constants. The argument that the reform is part of a fiscal discipline plan has failed to satisfy the public at a time when Sarkozy’s government, along with so many others, has spent millions of euros of public money bailing out the same banks whose greed led to the current international financial crisis in the first place. What is happening in the cities of France is not a French issue alone just because it is part of that country’s tradition in politics – along with the possibility that the situation will escalate. Threats of austerity measures in the name of fiscal discipline are a pan-European issue. In Southern Europe, the sociopolitical balance may be a lot more tenuous than it is France, but we did not see this magnitude of reaction to similar measures. The reason is fear, provoked by government threats that without significant cutbacks in spending, we will go bankrupt. Across Europe, the political and economic elite of almost every member state is pointing to the example of Greece to convince its citizens. Greece is the naughty student that is being punished so that the other rowdy students – namely Portugal and France – can be taught a lesson. The French, in contrast, have the self-confidence not to be manipulated by fear and, in this sense, their example may very well set a European trend. Such austerity programs, meanwhile, are not just about dealing with crises. As European countries lose their competitive edge on international markets, such programs are also about rallying behind the initiative of the German government and approving this Prussian-style form of fiscal discipline as the rule for the European Union. On a practical level, this means the people will be squeezed even more, while the margin of balancing the relationship between profit and labor becomes even slimmer. In short, social stability in Europe as a whole will likely be put to the test.