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The French left declared a political truce — the Union Sacrée — in August 1914, agreeing not to oppose the government during the war. In France and Germany, the workers’ movement faltered, trade union and other leftwing leaders rallied to the “national defence” and progressive battles were put aside. It would have been hard to do otherwise when, from the start of the conflict, the death toll was in the tens of thousands. Who would have been able to hear talk of peace above the fighting and nationalist rhetoric? Yet up until that June, perhaps even July, it was still possible to challenge them.
A century later, we are at another critical moment. The “clash of civilisations” is only one of many scenarios. The struggle that seems to have begun in Europe, and the way events unfold in Greece and Spain, may make it possible to stop that scenario becoming reality: but jihadist attacks, war on terror strategies and the curtailment of public freedoms make it more likely. They risk worsening all the crises that need to be resolved. That is the threat. The pressing challenge is responding to it.
Is a cartoonist free to caricature the prophet Muhammad? Can a Muslim woman wear a burqa in France? Will the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel increase? Welcome to 2015. France is wrestling with a social and democratic crisis made worse by the economic decisions of its governments and those of the European Union. The public consciousness is, at last, aware of the issues of financial regulation, wealth distribution and the means of production. But questions relating to religion regularly push these into the background (1). For over 20 years, “Islam in the banlieues”, “cultural insecurities” and “communautarisme” (ethnic separation) have panicked the media and some of the French public, to the delight of demagogues, ready to emphasise these highly emotional subjects so they can continue to set the agenda. For as long as they do, none of the fundamental problems will be debated seriously, even though so much depends on their resolution.
The murder of 12 journalists on 7 January at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and then the killing of four people, all Jewish, in a kosher supermarket, has created a climate of fear. Islam was invoked in these crimes, but so far they have not provoked the cycle of hatred and retaliation which those who inspired them were counting on.
The killers partly succeeded: mosques have been attacked and synagogues placed under police guard; some young, radicalised (and unrepresentative) Muslims, with only a sketchy knowledge of the rules of their faith, have been tempted by jihad, nihilism and armed struggle. But the killers also failed: they have given renewed life to the publication they wanted to destroy. The outcome of bigger battles will depend on French society’s resilience, and the rebirth of collective hope across Europe.
We need to be modest. It is not always possible to analyse events as they unfold. Stopping to think means taking the risk of understanding, of surprising people and being surprised. The attacks themselves were a surprise; so were the reactions. So far, the French have absorbed the shock: they have calmly demonstrated en masse and not been too swayed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s bellicose language; there has been no roll-back of democracy, as in the US after 9/11, though it is foolish and dangerous to send adolescents to prison just for expressing provocative opinions.
However, it is hard to imagine the consequences of another big attack, let alone several. They might create a permanent fault line between groups whose politics would be defined according to their origins, culture and religion. That is what the jihadists and the far right (including Israel’s far right) count on — the huge danger of a clash of civilisations. Preventing that scenario does not require that we should imagine a miraculously pacified society — how could that be with ghettos, geographical fault lines and social violence? — but that we pick the right battles to address its problems. This urgently demands a new European politics. In Greece and Spain, the fight is on.
In Greece, battle has begun
It did not take the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, long to make use of the Charlie Hebdo attack: “Today in Paris a massacre occurred. Yet here some people continue to encourage more illegal immigration and promise naturalisation.” Nikos Filis, editor of Avgi, a newspaper with, as main shareholder, the radical left coalition Syriza (2), came to a different conclusion: “The attack may orientate Europe’s future: either towards Le Pen and the far right, or towards a more reasoned approach to the problem. Because security needs cannot be met by the police alone.” That viewpoint wins no more votes in Greece than it does elsewhere in Europe. Vassilis Moulopoulos, who advises Alexis Tsipras on communication, knows this, but is untroubled: “If Syriza had been less intransigent on standing for the rights of immigrants, we would already have 50% of the votes. But this choice is one of the few points on which we all agree.”
Economic policies in Europe have been failing for years, nowhere more so than in Greece and Spain. In other EU countries governing parties appear resigned to the rise of the far right, and count on it keeping them in power as they unite against it. But Syriza and Podemos have opened up a fresh prospect (see Now can Podemos win in Spain?). No other European leftwing parties have made such rapid progress. They scarcely existed five years ago but now they look like credible candidates to exercise power; and they may be able to relegate their countries’ socialist parties — which share responsibility for the general financial disaster since 2008 — to a supporting role, just as Britain’s Labour Party supplanted the Liberal Party, and France’s Socialist Party supplanted the Radical Party (3). Those changes were permanent.
With the challenge of displacing social democratic parties partly achieved, the question remains: could the victory of a new left in Greece, and perhaps Spain, lead to a general reorientation of European politics? In Greece, the obstacles are huge. Syriza has no political allies at home and lacks the support of any European government. The struggle will be much tougher than the one France flunked in 2012, when a newly elected François Hollande could have claimed not only the mandate of the French electorate but also responsibility for 19.3% of EU GDP, compared with 2.3% in Greece and 12.1% in Spain (2013 figures), in order to “renegotiate” the European stability pact, as he had committed to do.
Syriza has taken the more optimistic view that the victory of a leftwing party in Greece or Spain this year could spark the fire. “European public opinion is more favourable to us,” Filis says. “And Europe’s elites also acknowledge that the strategies pursued thus far have led to an impasse. In their own interest, they are considering other policies, because they see that the eurozone as it is prevents Europe from playing a global role.”
EU uncertainties a last hope
After a harsh winter, a single swallow promises spring. This may be why Syriza’s leadership detects a promising difference of opinion between the German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB). Syriza takes the massive purchase of sovereign debt (quantitative easing) that the ECB recently announced as a sign that that the bank has recognised that austerity leads nowhere.
In Athens, that nowhere is all too clear. But austerity’s cruelty, with social and health consequences extending to hunger, cold and increases in infectious diseases and suicides, does not necessarily mean a change of policy (4). Austerity’s architects are well paid to have nerves of steel.
The macroeconomic indicators are scarcely more positive. After five years of shock treatment, Greece’s unemployment rate has tripled (25.5%); its growth rate, after a fall of 26% between 2009 and 2013, was a mere 0.6% in 2014; and the austerity programme’s major priority to reduce a debt of 113% of GDP has actually let it rise to 174%. That much was predictable, since the debt is expressed as a proportion of national wealth, which has collapsed. Mariano Rajoy, whose performance in Spain is almost as impressive, went to Athens to support Samaras: “Our countries need stability,” he said, “not sudden change or uncertainties.”
But in Greece “uncertainties” are now almost the last hope. Samaras’s policy, as laid down by the EU, would mean further tax cuts for middle and higher earners and businesses, more privatisations and more labour market “reforms”: also more budget surpluses to attempt (unsuccessfully) to pay back the debt, even when that requires cuts to all public services.
Before Greece’s general election Syriza’s economics spokesman Yiannis Milios reckoned that Samaras (with the Socialists’ support) had set a budget surplus target above 3% of GDP for an indeterminate period’ (3.5% in 2015, 4.5% in 2017, 4.2% thereafter): “It’s completely irrational,” said Milios, “unless he’d decided on a policy of austerity in perpetuity.” In truth, Samaras decided little: he carried out the terms of the accord that the troika of the IMF, European Commission and ECB imposed on his government.
What is Syriza’s alternative? A programme to “tackle the humanitarian crisis”, which would reallocate expenditure and priorities within the existing budget. Syriza has calculated precisely that free electricity, public transport, emergency food for the poorest and vaccines for children could be financed through more aggressive anti-corruption and anti-fraud measures. The outgoing conservative government admitted that these deprived the public coffers of at least €10bn a year.
“Public works cost four or five times more than elsewhere in Europe,” says Filis, and not just because Greece has so many islands and a mountainous interior. Milios points out that “55,000 Greeks each transferred over €100,000 abroad, though the declared income of 24,000 of them meant they couldn’t have afforded such a sum. Yet in the past two years only 407 of these fraudsters, flagged up by the IMF to the authorities in Athens, have been investigated by the tax authorities.”
Besides Syriza’s emergency humanitarian programme (estimated at €1.882bn), there are planned social measures to revive the economy: the creation of 300,000 public sector jobs on annually renewable contracts, the restoration of the minimum wage at its 2011 value, increases to the lowest pensions (see Fresh hope in Greece). Most of the plan, which also includes tax relief and the cancellation of debts for the most heavily indebted households and businesses, is set out in the “Thessaloniki programme” (5) as are its costs — €11.382bn, financed by generating an equivalent amount of new revenue.
These measures are not up for negotiation with other parties or the country’s creditors, Milios insists: “They are questions of national sovereignty; they won’t add anything to our deficit. We are therefore intending to implement this policy whatever the outcome of debt renegotiations.”
When it is a case of €320bn of Greek debt, Syriza is, however, inclined to negotiate. But here too they are betting on several states following suit. “The problem of debt,” Milios says, “is not a Greek problem but a European one. France and other countries are currently managing to pay their creditors, but only because their interest rates are extremely low. That won’t last. Between now and 2020, half of Spain’s sovereign debt is due to be repaid.”
In these circumstances, the European conference on debt that Tsipras called for two years ago in this publication (6) could become a realistic prospect. Ireland’s finance minister backs the idea, and it has a historical precedent in the 1953 conference that cancelled Germany’s war debts, including what it owed to Greece. Syriza hopes the conference it is calling for will provide “the alternative solution which will bury austerity for good.”
Syriza intends to achieve this through a partial debt write-off, then rescheduling the remainder and transferring the bulk of it to the ECB, which would refinance it. After all, the ECB has rescued private banks, to the extent of releasing them from their Greek debts, most of which have been re-allocated to eurozone member states. That gives these states — especially Germany and France — particular power. Angela Merkel is already claiming that the German taxpayer would be the main victim of any renegotiation of Greece’s debt, since Germany holds over 20% of it, and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has recently reiterated that she would not accept it. As so often, France’s position is fuzzier: it has demanded that Athens “respects the commitments it has made” (Hollande) and “continues to carry out the necessary economic and political reforms” (economy minister Emmanuel Macron), and yet has shown apparent willingness to contemplate Greek debt restructuring or rescheduling (finance minister Michel Sapin).
‘The troika’s guinea pigs’
It is not just in Germany that the European right is sounding the alarm. Finland’s prime minster, Alexander Stubb, has given a “resounding no” to any request for debt cancellation, and the French conservative daily Le Figaro asked: “Does Greece mean to poison Europe once again?” Two days later it did the sums: “Every French citizen would have to pay €735 to wipe out Greek debt” (7). (The paper is less quick with its calculator when adding up the cost of tax shields that benefit media owners, subsidies for arms manufacturers — one of whom, Dassault, owns Le Figaro — or financial aid for the press.)
Merkel has threatened Greece with expulsion from the euro if its government breaks the budgetary or financial disciplines to which Germany is so attached. The Greeks want both to loosen austerity policies and to remain in the single currency. Those wishes are shared by Syriza (8), because a small, exhausted country cannot fight on all fronts at once. “We’ve been the troika’s guinea pigs. We don’t want to become the guinea pigs for a euro exit,” says Valia Kaimaki, a journalist with links to Syriza. “Let a bigger country, such as Spain or France, go first.”
Moulopoulos believes that “without European support, it will not be possible to do anything at all.” That is why Syriza accords importance to support from forces beyond the radical left and the Greens, in particular the Socialists. Yet the Greeks have had experience of the surrenders made by social democracy since Andreas Papandreou forced his party to make a major shift towards neoliberalism 30 years ago. “If he had stayed on the left, there would have been no Syriza,” says Moulopoulos. “In Germany too, when Oskar Lafontaine resigned from the government [in 1999], he expressed regret that social democracy had become incapable of even the most insignificant reforms. Globalisation and neoliberalism with a human face completely destroyed it.”
In that case, isn’t it problematic to hope that European social democrats will accommodate the Greek left’s demands and help it counter Merkel’s intransigence? Electoral victory for Syriza, or for Podemos in Spain, could demonstrate, contrary to what Hollande or Matteo Renzi in Italy say, the viability of a European politics that rejected austerity. That would challenge more than the German right.
The next few months may determine the future of the EU. Before Hollande came to power, the choice was between boldness and stagnation (9). Now the threat is much greater. “If we don’t change Europe, the far right will do it for us,” Tsipras has warned. It has become even more urgent to be bold. The task for the left in Greece and Spain, on which much depends, is hard enough without adding onto their shoulders the heavy responsibility of defending Europe’s democratic destiny, and averting a “clash of civilisations”. But that is what is at stake.
“Greece, Europe’s weakest link, could become the strongest link of the European left,” Moulopoulos says. If not Greece, then perhaps Spain. Both together would not be too much, however, to combat the fear and despair that feeds far-right propaganda and jihadist nihilism. “It’s a modest and crazy dream,” as poet Louis Aragon wrote. The hope is that European politics ceases to condemn us to the merry-go-round on which the same people succeed each other in power, and pursue the same policies with the same impotence. Their record has become our threat. In Athens and Madrid, a change of course at long last?
Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique.
(2) Avgi, which publishes the Greek edition of Le Monde diplomatique, printed “Je suis Charlie” on its front page on 8 January. The historical experience (under the military dictatorship 1967-74) of the Greek left makes it particularly sensitive to freedom of expression.
(3) In 1922 in the UK and 1936 in France.
(7) Editorial “Le vent du boulet” (A close call), Le Figaro, Paris, 6 January 2015 and Le Figaro,8 January 2015.
(8) For a rebuttal, see Frédéric Lordon, “L’alternative de Syriza: passer sous la table ou la renverser”, La pompe à phynance, 19 January 2015.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.