Few in Turkey will mourn the exit from the political stage of Nicolas Sarkozy. The outgoing French president, the 11th leader felled by the debt crisis in the eurozone, had been an outspoken opponent of Turkey’s membership bid for the European Union and his antagonism toward Turkey often felt very personal.
The return of a socialist president is an important turning point not just for France, but also for the EU, which has been steadily drifting to the right in recent years. French voters, feeling increasingly insecure as their indebted country is under pressure to implement budget cuts, voted for change. Sarkozy’s abrasive and showy personality, as much as his inability to re-energize an increasingly confused France and transform it, as he had initially promised, cost him the presidency.
The more sober François Hollande represents hope for French voters, but he will struggle to keep his electoral promises. At least on the economic front he may find his room for maneuver limited by the markets and the ratings agencies, whose rulings -- controversially -- often carry as much impact as political decisions, as Turkey discovered lately when Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook from positive to stable, a decision that many, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, contested.
At a time when most countries are raising the age of retirement, the socialist president-elect has promised to lower it from 62 to 60 years for workers who started work at 18, to create 60,000 jobs in education and to raise the minimum salary. But Hollande will also bring a change of style and emphasis in other areas. A self-declared champion of gender equality, he has pledged to have an equal number of male and female ministers and to introduce legislation against sexual harassment, a problem brought to the fore by the successive scandals involving former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
But if the new French president vowed to protect the welfare state in the name of social justice and equity, the far right is equally vocal in its opposition to budget cuts and globalization, this time in the name of nationalism. Another significant outcome of the French presidential elections was the strong showing in the first round of the right-wing Front National led by Marine Le Pen, who has given a more acceptable, but no less dangerous, face to excessive chauvinism and racism. Her party won 6.4 million votes in the first round. Economic concerns dominated the campaign, but immigration was always present in the background. Sarkozy tried to capture some votes on the extreme right in the second round when he complained that France had “too many foreigners.” The issue will likely resurface during parliamentary elections in June.
In Greece, voters punished the two main parties, New Democracy (ND) and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), which have dominated the political scene for decades and negotiated the recent bailout deal with the EU and the IMF. The two coalition partners now command less than a third of the total vote. ND won with less than 20 percent of the poll and it will attempt to forge a coalition government, but starting from a weak position, it faces a major challenge. PASOK, perceived as responsible for some of the worst excesses of recent years, only came third with just over 13 percent. Opposition to the harsh terms of the bailout, which are crippling Greece and causing much misery among the population, benefited both the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), which came second, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party which, worryingly, won 21 seats in parliament.
What next? Whatever government emerges in Greece, it is likely to be fragile. It will probably attempt to renegotiate the terms of the bailout, raising new questions about Greece’s place in the eurozone and indeed the future of the eurozone itself. Angela Merkel and Sarkozy were the main proponents of the stability pact prepared late last year by the EU, and adopted by 25 of the 27 members. Hollande will seek to maintain good relations with Germany, but he has even fewer affinities with Merkel than his predecessor. His call for a more nuanced approach to the debt crisis, focusing on growth rather than on budget discipline alone, will strike a chord across the continent, where anger is growing against the tight-belt approach that has caused unemployed to rise above a 10 percent average throughout the continent.
French and Greek voters demonstrated once again the veracity of the old adage, “It’s the economy, stupid!” The latest polls have just confirmed that the eurozone faces more debate, turmoil and uncertainty as threats to the high human cost of the debt crisis redraw the political landscape.