Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Votes in France, Greece could alter debt crisis debate

LONDON — For more than two years now, they have all imposed their will on Europe's raging debt crisis: German leaders. Panicked governments. Jittery financial markets. Bossy international agencies.

The people? Not so much.

Across the continent, officials have forced through brutal budget cuts despite mass protests from Paris to Prague. In Greece and Italy, technocratic prime ministers have been installed without a single citizen going to the polls. Of the 25 European nations that have agreed to a new treaty limiting public spending, only Ireland is bothering to let voters weigh in on the issue.

But today, the people of France and Greece will have their say, in elections that have the potential to recast the debate on how to solve an economic unraveling that shows little sign of abating.

"Democracy is on its way into the euro crisis," said Hugo Brady of the Brussels office of the London-based Center for European Reform.

Today's elections are likely to see new leaders brought to power on pledges to revisit their countries' strict adherence to the austerity and fiscal discipline prescribed by Germany as the cure for Europe's ills. That the challenges come from these two countries is significant: France has been Germany's most important ally, while Greece sits at the epicenter of Europe's debt problems.

Popular backlash against the German fixation on austerity has been building momentum for months, in nations whose hurting middle classes say the cuts have only brought misery.

The unemployment rate in the 17-member eurozone is at 10.9 percent, an average that masks the dire predicament of countries such as Spain, where one in four workers is out of a job. At least half a dozen eurozone nations have tumbled into a double-dip recession.

Greeks have seen their standard of living plunge after multiple rounds of budget cuts demanded by creditors as a condition of Athens' two international bailouts. Antonis Samaras of the conservative New Democracy party, which leads the opinion polls for today's parliamentary elections, has alarmed some European officials by vowing to renegotiate elements of the rescue deal, which he says is killing, not saving, the Greek economy.

Even mainstream politicians are challenging policy decisions made in Brussels rather than in national capitals, or by powerful leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It's not for Germany to decide for the rest of Europe," declared Francois Hollande, the French left-wing Socialist candidate who is expected to defeat incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in today's runoff.

Hollande insists that Europe come up with an agreement on measures to promote economic growth. That view is gaining currency across the continent.

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