Don't play with the people

Just when free-market capitalists thought they were home free, voters came and hit them upside the head

Published June 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

france's new Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, appointed two Communists to his Cabinet on Wednesday, capping a remarkable month in Europe that saw Britain's free-market conservatives tossed out by "New Labor" and France's equally Thatcherite Gaullists crumble before a left-wing party thought to be on the brink of extinction.

Only last week, Europe, with the winds of fiscal austerity at its back, seemed to be marching lockstep toward a single currency and a free-market economic union. France, Germany and their European partners have been slashing budgets, privatizing government-owned concerns and reducing social services to achieve the monetary stability demanded by the Maastricht Treaty.

Is the French election part of a broader backlash that may upset the dreams and assumptions of the global free marketeers? As Prime Minister Jospin was announcing his new government, Salon spoke with Dominique Moise of the Center for International Studies in Paris.

Is what we have seen in France since Sunday a Gallic quirk or does it presage a swing away from Thatcherism, deficit reduction and globalization across Europe?

One cannot say this is purely a French phenomenon. The British had enough of their Thatcherite party. It may happen in Germany next. By reintroducing social issues, by declaring that ideology is not dead and that politics are back, the French may be showing the way for the rest of Europe.

In what way?

The lesson of the French election was: Don't play with the people. (French President Jacques) Chirac tried to convince them that they needed elections so he could continue his austerity policies. The people responded by saying they need jobs. The lesson for the rest of Europe is that if you try to make them perform a role which you wrote for them, they will write their own script.

But Chirac is still the president.

Yes, but his ability to rule now is the big question. He is now isolated within his own camp. Hundreds of right-wing members of parliament have lost their seats because of him, and they are furious with him. At the same time, he now has a very strong left-wing prime minister to deal with. So the doubts that many people had before about Chirac and his ability to govern have been reinforced.

How do you explain the reappearance of the French Communist Party in the government? Weren't they the last bastion of old-line Stalinism in Western Europe?

This is not the same Communist Party as before. They have a completely new leadership, and the past is past. Nobody is really scared of the Communists, except in one arena -- the European Union and the euro -- which the Communists oppose. They could slow things down here, but nobody expects them to have a blocking power over Maastricht.

Jospin has said he will not be bound by the previous government's commitment to austerity, yet he is committed to the introduction of the euro -- a commitment that would seem to demand further austerity. How will he deal with this apparent contradiction?

We don't know. We just don't know. That's the big issue. But it underscores something that we can see now throughout Europe, and that is a great popular ambivalence about the meaning of the euro. They don't understand why it requires such sacrifice, such harsh economic conditions, since in their mind the whole project is political.

And you see the pendulum swinging away from continued deficit reduction and austerity measures across the continent?

I think so. At the European Union meeting in Amsterdam later this month, we'll probably see more of a concentration on social issues. That's clear. And (Chancellor Helmut) Kohl is already very much on the defensive economically in Germany. So, again, perhaps what happened in France is a precedent and not an exception. For sure, the January 1999 schedule for the euro is now in question. It still very well may happen, but a whole set of long-forgotten issues -- the people's pain and sacrifice -- is now front and center, and European leaders are going to have to deal with that.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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