The Resurgence of the European Left

Francois Hollande, who won the French presidential election this weekend, is part of a broader European movement against the EU and austerity.

HeatherHollande May7 p.jpg
Then-candidate Francois Hollande at an April event for his French presidential campaign. / Reuters

On Sunday, French voters struck back at President Nicolas Sarkozy's "anglo-saxonisme" policies of British-style austerity and free-market economics by electing socialist François Hollande to replace him. Ironically, in doing so, they are following a similar political path as those Anglo-Saxons across the English Channel. Hollande's win is also part of a larger European revival of left-wing politics, a reaction against the European Union's struggles.


As the French Socialist Party has gained ground against Nicolas Sarkozy's more conservative UMP, the Labour Party in Britain may be pulling ahead of the Conservative Party, which currently leads the UK's coalition government. What's more, in a set of polls from mid-April, Labour took its largest poll lead since the last election, while the right-wing UK Independence Party displaced the Liberal Democrats for the third place -- the UK Independence Party, like the similarly right-wing Front National that took third place in France, is strongly anti-E.U.

This weekend also saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), take their worst results in 50 years, in an election in Schleswig-Holstein. Their coalition partners, the Free Democrats, did poorly as well. That leaves the second-place Social Democratic Party taking roughly 30 percent of the vote, and able to form a coalition with the Greens.

Meanwhile, in Greece, New Democracy and its partner, the socialist Pasok party, failed to win a combined majority, losing ground to radical leftist coalition Syriza, which campaigned on rejecting the terms of the Greek bailout and freezing payments to creditors.

What do all these developments have in common? In France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Greece right now, the tide is turning against austerity. François Hollande's election may be the most prominent example: Hollande succeeded on a platform that only a few months ago was still being attacked as a spendthrift's pipe dream. Clearly, though, France is not the only country where attitudes are shifting rapidly.

Another possibility to consider, looking at these results, is that these national politics are looking simultaneously more leftist and more nationalist -- in other words, more anti-European Union. In France, Hollande's popularity stemmed in part from his promise to stand up to German leadership and chart a new course for French participation in the European Union. In Germany, Merkel is the one standing for self-sacrifice and collective European action, and she's rapidly losing support. Greek Syriza's entire platform is built on the idea of ditching the EU-International Monetary Fund plan for Greek recovery.

Britain's political landscape is a little more complicated, because the Labour Party has traditionally been more pro-Europe than the Conservative Party. But it's still not so different: the simultaneous rise of UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates a withdrawal from the EU, shows the joint leftist-isolationist streak is strong in Britain as well. UKIP gained record results in a local election just last week.

The UK, France, Germany, and Greece do not by any means represent the whole of Europe. These four countries, though, are crucial actors right now, the first three for their economic and political clout, and Greece for its potential ability to pull Europe down with it. Voters in all four countries seem to want governments that will spend more money and attention on them, and a little less on their neighbors. That's an understandable position in a time of continued economic distress. It doesn't, however, seem to bode well for Europe as a whole. Even from the economic perspective, there are reasons to be worried. Many economists -- though this is a heavily political issue in the U.S. -- still believe spending more money can revive an economy. You'd be hard-pressed, however, to find one who felt that stiffer impediments to trade would be good for the European economic recovery. 

The euro fell heavily Monday morning, dropping to a three-month low against the dollar and a three-and-a-half-year low against the pound. Europe's leftist leaders, should they continue to gain ground, will have their work cut out for them.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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