Austerity is a dirty word in Europe, but what next after Socialist win?

Stock traders watch their screens in Paris Monday, one day after France handed the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande, a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years.
Stock traders watch their screens in Paris Monday, one day after France handed the presidency to Socialist Francois Hollande, a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years. Laurent Cipriani/AP Photo

Paris - The day after Francois Hollande rode to power in France on a slogan of "change now" the conversation in Europe is already different: Austerity has become a dirty word.

Greek parties who reject the extreme belt-tightening that comes with international bailouts were the big winners in parliamentary elections there. German voters in a northern state ousted the coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, which has pressed the case for austerity.

And France, of course, elected Hollande, its first Socialist president in more than a decade and one who has promised stimulus spending.

"Austerity can no longer be inevitable!" he shouted in his first speech after Nicolas Sarkozy conceded Sunday night. The question remains whether Germany agrees - and will allow at least some countries in the eurozone to spend more freely.

That raft of elections Sunday unsettled markets, which sank in Greece, fell across Europe and then pulled back amid some bargain hunting. France's borrowing costs rose initially and Germany's fell - an indication that investors are pulling back into the safe haven offered by German debt. The 17-nation euro spiraled to a three-month low Monday against the dollar, hitting $1.2972 before traders sniffed a bargain and pushed it higher.

Much of the negative reaction was focused on Greece, where the political parties that backed the bailouts lost their majority in Parliament. That opens up the possibility that Greece's new leaders could renege on commitments made to secure the country's massive rescue loans - or even decide to leave the euro. The conservatives will try to put together a new government, but there's a good chance they could fail - and that would usher in another month of financial chaos before new elections.

Merkel pressed Greek leaders to stay the course. "Of course the most important thing is that the programs we agreed with Greece are continued," she said Monday.

Any pivot from the fiscal compact that insisted on massive budget cuts across the 17 nations that use the euro will have big implications for Europe and the world. The pact, while not perfect, did calm markets for a time. Some fear the new political wave could usher in more turmoil, opening the wound of Europe's debt crisis and further threatening the ailing eurozone economy.

Eight of the 17 eurozone nations are already in recession and unemployment across the bloc rose to 10.9 percent in March - its highest ever.

If investors pull back from Europe amid uncertainty, its growth policies will have trouble making headway - and that could also drag on the global economy.

The U.S. and European Union are important trading partners and each consumes a large portion of the other's exports. With unemployment skyrocketing in Europe, consumption is flagging and that will have a knock-on effect on the United States.

The American and European financial systems are also heavily intertwined, and U.S. money market funds still have significant exposure to Europe.

Over the past two years, France and Germany have steered Europe through the debt crisis - though not always well - and declared an end to the flouting of deficit limits that led Europe into the debt crisis.

But the crackdown could not have come at a worse time - with the world economy slowing - and propelled Europe into a vicious austerity spiral. Cutting spending, which meant laying off state employees and ending stimulus programs, further slowed nations' economies and produced less tax revenue, which meant more cuts were needed to meet deficit targets.

Now a backlash has begun and for many, Hollande is its leader.

The new French leader has promised to end the negative loop, demanding that the fiscal compact that targeted spending be re-negotiated to include measures to promote growth. Many economists have long advocated for a greater emphasis on growth, but that idea seemed to gather steam among European policymakers only as Hollande promoted it.

"At the moment that the (French vote) result was proclaimed, I am sure that in many European countries, there was relief, hope," he told supporters in his central hometown of Tulle.

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