AS BILL CLINTON limps off to Europe for a round of capital-hopping, the French electorate has just handed the international ruling elites a nasty surprise. In the first round of voting on Sunday for hastily called parliamentary elections, the left coalition narrowly edged out the right.
This was not supposed to happen. France's conservative president, Jacques Chirac, had called the lightning-quick vote hoping to catch the left parties unprepared, and snaffle a new five-year mandate in advance of next year's planned introduction of the single European currency, the euro. To qualify for monetary integration, France would have to meet hyper-stringent fiscal restraints cooked up by the bankers in Frankfurt who control the German mark--the benchmark currency in Europe--and thus dominate the financial affairs of the continent. Chirac and his right-wing government had inaugurated a draconian austerity program to meet the criteria for the euro: a fire sale of those few remaining state-owned enterprises in France's traditionally mixed economy, massive cutbacks in France's first-rate system of universal health care, huge reductions in pensions and other elements of the social safety net, and higher taxes on employees. At the same time, in a vain attempt to solve France's 12.5 percent unemployment problem, the conservatives had hammered through a series of tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. But trickle-down economics has worked no better in France than it did here.
France's Socialist Party--which, since the administration of the late President Francois Mitterand, has practiced a vague, milquetoast version of social democracy--has taken a "yes, but..." position on European economic integration, insisting that workers' rights be protected and that what the French call the "institutions of collective solidarity," or the social state, be preserved. Its coalition partners--the de-Stalinized Communist Party, the Greens, and several regionally strong smaller left parties--are even more critical, and have insisted that key elements of the Treaty of Maastricht (which established conditions for the euro) be renegotiated. That means the French voters have just said no to a European economy constructed by and for the multinationals that has little regard for the social dislocations and economic hardships that forced, rapid integration will cause.
Although the leader of France's left coalition, the Socialist Party's Lionel Jospin, is a plodding, cautious sort who accepts most of the givens of the market economy, his position on Europe stands in sharp contrast to that of Tony Blair, the new British prime minister. Hailed in the American mass media as the "British Clinton," the poll-driven Labor Party leader--frequently called "Tory Blair" or "Tony Blur" in the U.K. press for his adoption of Thatcherite economics--has been a frenetic advocate of European integration at any cost. Blair's first act of government was to hand control over interest rates to London's arch-conservative central bankers, which sharply curtails his government's freedom of action in the economic sphere.
In the wake of Blair's victory, the American punditocracy hailed the neutered Labor Party's win as further evidence of the death of the classic European left. In fact, most of Western Europe is now governed by social democratic parties--in Scandinavia, Holland, Italy, Austria, and Portugal--and Germany's SDP seems poised to make a comeback as rising unemployment and givebacks imposed on workers fuel discontent with the austerities of conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl, exacted by the bankers in Frankfurt.
Chirac dumped his unpopular prime minister, Alain Juppé, after the left's first-round victory, but that probably won't prevent France's left coalition from eking out a parliamentary majority in this coming Sunday's runoff. That would act as a brake on building the Europe of the multinationals. In that event, while it will be premature to celebrate the rebirth of genuinely socialist politics, it will signal that France's middle and working classes will not supinely accept the tearing-down of the system of social protections against the ravages of capitalism that were so hard-won in decades past. And the era of Global Clintonism so confidently predicted by the media will, at least for the time being, take one step back.