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Europe, After The Vote Against Austerity


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A week ago, French and Greek voters went to the polls and austerity lost. Each country voted in new governments though it's hard to say what government will come to be in Greece yet, who are expected to try to stop further cuts in public spending, even as Western Europe tries to stabilize their common currency, the euro, and dig themselves out of massive debt. We've convened a trio of our correspondents in the region: Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, Eric Westervelt in Berlin, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Thank you all very much for being with us.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Eleanor, let's begin with you. Francois Hollande says that he wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers, and even talks about lowering the retirement age for some folks. Does he have the money or support in Parliament to do that?

BEARDSLEY: Well, he has talked about adding a growth quotient to this pure austerity measures that he says in not working for Europe. So he has talked about investing in key things like education and infrastructure, things that will get the economy going, jump start it. He's not going to roll back the retirement age. Sarkozy upped the retirement age from 62 to 65. He's leaving it there for pretty much everybody except for people he says who started very young working at like the age of 14 in hard, blue-collar, physical jobs.

But Francois Hollande is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist. He knows that France doesn't have a lot of leeway to do, you know, huge things, so he's not going to go overboard with spending, but he does want to jumpstart the economy.

SIMON: Sylvia, you were in Greece last week for the election there. How are they trying to put together a government?

POGGIOLI: Well, that looks like it's going to be very difficult. They've given the mandate to the first three parties that came in; in order, the new democracy, then the upstart radical left coalition and then the socialist. But there are no numbers to make a government, and the sense was that it's very likely we're going to have another round of elections, perhaps in a month. Greek people, frankly, I felt this incredible sense of relief.

I heard many Greeks say that by knocking out of power the pro-austerity parties, voters were taking back control of their destiny. My feeling is that should the worst-case scenario happen and Greece is pushed out of the Eurozone, psychologically the Greek people are much better prepared for that now.

SIMON: Eric, I feel like we should go to you immediately then, because obviously a lot of the vote in Greece and France seem to be a reaction to austerity policies that a lot of voters hung by name on Germany and Chancellor Merkel. What's the reaction been in Germany to the elections?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Well, there's been some pushback from the chancellor. I mean, I think the Germans are concerned there's this sort of thinly veiled anti-German feeling to a lot of the rhetoric that's been on the campaign trail anyway in France and Greece, she told Parliament this week that, you know, growth through more debt will just throw us back to the height of this crisis, and we're not going to go there, and she also said clearly while she'll welcome the new French president to Berlin next week, the fiscal compact for Europe, you know, isn't up for negotiation and re-negotiation. So we'll see what the tone is when the French president arrives for talks - the first talks next week.

SIMON: Eric, let me get you to respond to this first, but maybe perhaps all three of you, any concern about Germany playing the heavy in this dispute, given all this history?

WESTERVELT: I think there is, and the Germans are really sensitive about that. But then you have to realize the Germans also feel there's some donor fatigue here, and they feel like they've given enough. I mean, at the height at the financial crisis, we have to remember there was big calls in Europe 2008, 2009, Scott for stimulus projects. France led that charge, and actually, Germany ended up doing a much larger stimulus program, one that's still sort of going on, and then they really spearheaded and were the big backers for two bailouts of Greece, as well as bailouts of Ireland and Portugal.

So I think this perception of the Germans as austere and frugal is a little misplaced when you really look at what they've done in the last few years to try to help the Eurozone out of this crisis.

SIMON: Sylvia?

POGGIOLI: Voters are demanding a plan B, and alternative policy to this austerity that's been so punishing. And I think the one thing that we have to point out about this anti-austerity wave, that it's coupled with rising populism. It's a surprise entry in the Greek Parliament of party with neo-Nazi sympathies, Golden Dawn. This was especially surprising in a county that never had a Nazi-like movement. Some analysts the growth of populist movements is a direct reflection of, you know, the growing gap between people and their political elites.

I think some politicians are being to react to this public resistance. Here in Italy, the technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, who has long tried to convince Chancellor Merkel to shift focus from austerity to growth, he's been emboldened by Hollande's victory in France. The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, told the European Parliament this week that a fiscal compact, which has been pushed by Germany, of course, has to be followed by a growth compact. So I think there is beginning to be some shift in the mood. The anti-austerity wave is certainly seen as game changer, certainly in southern Europe.

SIMON: Let me ask all of you from your vantage point of where you cover the region so well for us, are people happy with the European union? Do they regret adopting a common currency?

BEARDSLEY: In France, not at all. You know, the far right, they talk about getting out of the Euro, but most people are very happy to be in the Euro. I mean, they realize that European countries cannot go it alone against China, the U.S., India, you know, you have to have a counterbalance that's Europe together. So they realize this, and there's no question of France leaving the Euro. People do not want to leave it. They want to say in it.

WESTERVELT: I think everywhere I travel in Europe, they are still supportive of the EU and the European project, but they are looking for a plan B. They're tired of feeling like bankers and bureaucrats in Brussels are sort of pushing them around and pushing the agenda, and you're getting some interesting reactions to this crisis, both on the far right and the far left. I was recently in the Netherlands, and the right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders is sort of toning down his anti-Islam rhetoric, and he's really playing up the populist anti-austerity themes, and that's playing well. He's getting a boost in the polls.

POGGIOLI: Yeah. And you hear more and more people talking about this sort of democracy gap because they just feel they're being run by these bureaucrats, these suits in Brussels, and none of them have been elected by the European voter.

SIMON: Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, Eric Westervelt in Berlin. Thank you all very much.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Scott.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott.

WESTERVELT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.