Voters’ Anti-Austerity Mood in France and Germany

Recent election outcomes in national and state elections in France and Germany indicate that the resentment against austerity measures has made itself felt politically.

In France the victorious François Hollande of the Socialist Party made promises that appealed to French voters beginning to feel the heat from austerity measures – he said earning over €1 million would be taxed at a rate of 75%, that he would hire 60,000 teachers, reduce electricity prices for those with lower incomes, etc. Hollande’s election is a significant victory for the Left for the first time in seventeen years. But what lies before Hollande is the job of attaining that delicate balance between fuelling actual change with a socialist vision, and addressing the legacy of problems left behind by Sarkozy in the course of the unfolding economic crisis. There are also crucial issues on which Hollande will have to take a stand, such as the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a matter on which he is likely to face a great deal of pressure from the US, the pact to curb deficit, and the question of Islamophobia in France.

Considering the issue of opinion across Europe on questions of austerity and bailouts to governments to maintain the systemic status quo, the drubbing received by Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) is also important. In elections in two states in Germany – Schleswig Holstein and Nordrhein-Westfalen, which is the most populous state in Germany – the Social Democrats (SPD) emerged victorious along with the Greens. This has serious implications for public acceptance of Merkel’s European as well as domestic policies as well as for the Christian Democrats in the elections in 2013. Particularly in Nordrhein-Westfalen, with voters expressing their support for Hannelore Kraft, who delivered on her promise to increase employment, increasing the workforce of teachers, and policemen, and improving infrastructure.

The Pirate Party of Germany, till recently virtually unknown, has won seats in key state parliaments for a fourth time, carving out a political space with an agenda of civil liberties and citizens’ participation in decision-making.

A development that is also cause for concern is Marine Le Pen of the racist right-wing Front National polling third in the first round, with nearly 18% of the total vote. Critics believe that this significant rise in their vote share is a result of, on the one hand, Sarkozy’s rhetoric against immigrants, ethnic minorities, and Muslims, and the inability of mainstream parties to set a clear agenda addressing these issues head on, and on the other hand Le Pen’s use of a degree of subtlety in comparison to her father’s outright fascist agenda.

The Left Front, which raised clear and pertinent issues, saw a rise in vote share compared to the previous presidential election with a significant 11.10% of total votes. Their presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, proposed a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage, increased taxation for higher income groups, an immediate return to the 35-hour working week, retirement at 60 with full pension, and the nationalisation of banks and energy firms. These were clearly issues that spoke to the working people of France, after the consistent agitations over pension and other issue over the past few years, and growing support for these demands was also seen in massive support rallies in cities across France.

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