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Plus ça change: Europe wipes its leaders off the electoral map

Germany’s Angela Merkel may be feeling increasingly isolated as the anti-austerity movement dispatches former allies.

The democratic executions of Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Lucas Papademos in Greece means the body count of European leaders guillotined by angry electorates has risen to 12.

Sarkozy and Papademos join the political corpses of Gordon Brown (UK), Jose Zapateros (Spain), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy) and George Papandreou (Greece) on the dustheap of history. Voters in Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia have also terminated governments with maximum prejudice since 2008.

That must leave leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel, who faces the electorate in 2013, feeling extremely nervous.

Politics in hard times

Voters have not discriminated as they have deposed both centre-left and centre-right parties throughout Europe. For example, Ireland elected Enda Kenny’s conservative Fine Gael party to office, while Britons replaced Gordon Brown with the Cameron-Clegg Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government.

Across the English Channel, Spain rejected José Zapatero’s socialist government, which acceded to power following the 2004 Madrid bombings, and elected Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative-liberal People’s Party.

But France last Sunday swept aside 17 years of conservative rule and elected an untested Socialist, François Hollande.

Meanwhile, Greece has no government, such is the public’s antipathy for its mainstream political parties. Another election, tentatively planned for July, is likely.

Paris in the spring

François Hollande tried to inject the spirit of the Revolution into his campaign, although the Parti Socialiste’s victory ended with Moet et Chandon, rather than rivers of blood.

Hollande may present himself as a cleanskin, but he is simply another member of the old guard, who entered government as an adviser in Mitterrand’s presidency in 1981. If Hollande has one thing in common with Sarkozy, it’s the fact that he’s done absolutely nothing but politics for his entire life.

Like Jacques Chirac and virtually all previous French cabinet ministers, Hollande is an énarque, a graduate of that training ground for politicians and bureaucrats, the École National d'Administration (ENA).

Chirac is an énarque. So is Hollande’s former partner and 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. And so is the new President’s likely foreign minister, Laurent Fabius.

Laurent who? Glad you asked. Fabius is part of the French gerontocracy (he is over 65, after all) that will head up Hollande’s distinctly old-hat cabinet. One of Hollande’s key election platforms is to reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60. So good old Laurent should be getting his Métro pass in the post any day now.

Most French voters probably thought Fabius was dead, if they’d even heard of him in the first place. He wasn’t dead; he was merely waiting for someone to return his phone calls.

As prime minister (1984-86), Fabius was one of several centre-left leaders who climbed on the liberal market reform bandwagon, a posture dutifully duplicated by more successful centre-left leaders in the 1990s, such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

It wasn’t difficult for Fabius to make the switch. At 37, he was France’s youngest prime minister to date, and President Mitterrand was in the throes of abandoning his disastrous experiment with nationalization, which had been the price of the 1981 coalition between the Socialists and the Parti Communiste.

While Margaret Thatcher refused to U-turn in the face of austerity, strikes and millions unemployed, Fabius turned and fled from nationalization.

But unlike Blair and centre-left leaders in Australia and New Zealand in the 1980s, Fabius did not view markets as the solution to French economic problems.

The result: Fabius left the French economy in 1986 exactly how he found it in 1981: in recession. Previously, from 1981 until 1983, Fabius had been Budget Minister. Not a very successful one.

It would be his successor as prime minister, Jacques Chirac (1986-88), who would undertake a wave of deregulation and privatization. It cost Chirac the presidency as well; the unpopularity of market reforms killed his chances in the 1988 election. Chirac would have to wait until 1995 to get the keys to the Elysée Palace.

The Socialist Party veterans – known disparagingly as the ‘elephants’ – are stampeding to Paris to make their claims on the seats of power.

The latest rumour is that Martine Aubrey will be appointed premier. Like Marine Le Pen of the Front National, Aubrey, 61, is yet another member of a political dynasty. She is the daughter of Jacques Delors, former finance minister in the Mitterrand administration. Delors was also the powerful EU Commission President (1985–94). However, publically, Aubrey tends not to use the Delors name.

Expect to see more 1980s job-seekers in Hollande’s administration shortly.

And this just in: Hollande has used his first real speech as president-elect to attack Britain. Hollande said that Britain is “indifferent to the fate of the euro area” and “attentive only to the interests of the City.” (yes, I know it’s the Daily Mail, but he did say it).

Meanwhile, in Athens…

The news is not good: the Freedom Party might be able to cobble together some kind of provisional coalition until another election can be help, probably in July. But a second election might not resolve anything either.

In an ominous development, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, who is expected to be asked to form a government by the Greek president, has declared the previous government’s bailout commitments, “null and void.”

Even less edifying is the sight of the Greece’s Golden Dawn, an anti-immigration party that wants to install landmines on Greece’s borders (yes).

Golden Dawn has obtained nearly 7% of the vote and have gained parliamentary representation for the first time.

Centrist parties, long dominant in the European political mainstream, were hit hard in Greece, just as Golden Dawn, the Front National in France and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) have ridden the dual tides of anti-immigration sentiment and the rejection of austerity regimes.

Berlin: Resistance is futile

Angela Merkel has responded to the vociferous anti-austerity votes in Greece and France by declaring her hand early: there will be no renegotiation of the fiscal compact, formalized in March this year.

The French Parliament, along with most of the 27 EU legislatures, is yet to ratify the EU fiscal compact. Hollande’s Socialists hold almost 58% of the National Assembly lower house seats in the new Parliament.

Greece’s parliament passed the fiscal compact in March this year. But it is unlikely that an unstable government with an uncooperative civil service will be able to meet the stringent budget cuts demanded under the new EU regime.

Politics and the Franco-German entente will force Merkel and Hollande to come up with a compromise, as Hollande’s economic policy cannot simply be ‘Sarkozyism without Sarkozy’.

Instead, look for a European ‘growth pact’ in the near future; this is likely to be Merkel’s only concession as Germany demands fiscal discipline.

How would a growth pact be financed?

Cash-strapped EU governments are unlikely to dig deeper, so the money will come from forward commitments: the EU has already raised its revenue requests for the 2014–20 financial framework. Expect EU regional and structural funds to shift finances around so that labour-intensive projects throughout the EU are prioritized.

Don’t expect Merkel to acquiesce to Hollande’s demands easily though; as Volker Kauder, parliamentary leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union said Tuesday, “Germany is not here to finance French election promises.”

Even in prosperous Germany, Angela Merkel understands political reality: with 12 European leaders gone, no government is safe.

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