Beware the European Street
MacShane, Denis, Newsweek International
Byline: Denis MacShane; Macshane is a Labour M.P. and a former minister of Europe in Britain.
Everyone knows about the "Arab Street," to which most policymakers listen with care. But now may be the time of the European street. More and more disenchanted citizens are deciding that the politics of the street make more sense than their ruling politicians. Europe's elite may have just made its annual pilgrimage to Davos, but no one is listening to the incantations from the Swiss Alps. Instead, the European public has staged angry demonstrations in more and more countries.
The latest and most symbolic nation to be hit is France-- for history suggests that when the French take to the streets, the rest of Europe can soon find itself in a new political era. President Nicolas Sarkozy began the new year boasting about his six-month presidency of the EU. He ended January with every French city and most towns being filled with public displays of outrage. Sarkozy once sarcastically remarked that "when the French go on strike, no one notices." But that's no longer true now that workers from large, privately owned firms have joined the unemployed, students, environmentalists and protected public-sector employees in wellcoordinated strikes and marches. For the first time in more than two decades, the Socialists, the main opposition party, have also thrown their organizational weight behind street actions. Opinion polls say 65 percent of French citizens support the protest movement, even if they didn't all turn out in subzero temperatures to take part.
Only yesterday, it seemed, Sarkozy had French politics in his grip as he tempted left and liberal politicians into his government. His speeches were peppered with leftist tropes as he denounced "finance capitalism" and announced a new economic era with all the fervor of a Paris intellectual regurgitating vulgar Marxism. But Sarkozy's efforts to define a leftism-lite have failed to win converts as the global recession has hit France. Unemployment may be rising faster in Spain, but the French economy has skidded to a halt even as Paris has given tax breaks to the rich and imposed welfare and spending cuts.
Farther east, the situation is equally grim in Greece, which is still paralyzed by strikes and protests that began two months ago, when students rose up against the police killing of a student. The rightist Greek government has watched helplessly as Athens drifts out of its control. Greece's main traffic artery has been blocked for days by angry farmers who joined the fray, sealing off the capital with tractors as they demanded government help to offset falling world agricultural prices.
A decade ago, the European hard left seemed to have been marginalized by reformist modernizers like Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schroder in Germany and the post-communist Social Democrats of Italy. …