The mood among Europe’s ruling classes has taken a turn for the better of late.
They are hoping that Nicolas Sarkozy’s victory in the French presidential elections earlier this month signals a more general shift to the right throughout the European Union (EU).
Soon the dominant political axis in the EU will bind together Germany under Angela Merkel, France under Sarkozy, and Britain under Gordon Brown.
All are firmly wedded to the alliance with the US and strongly committed to neoliberal economic policies.
Merkel and Sarkozy now plan to revive the European Constitution that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands two years ago.
They hope they can smuggle through a slimmed down version without having to put it to a popular vote anywhere.
The French and Dutch results conjured up a nightmare vision of Europe divided between elites trying to drive through neoliberal policies and populations in revolt against them. This now seems to have been banished.
It is certainly the case that the free market right is strongly entrenched at the level of establishment politics.
But in continental Europe, these forces have yet to succeed in driving through the kind of neoliberal restructuring of society that Margaret Thatcher initiated in Britain and Tony Blair continued.
Lack of support
The 2005 German federal elections revealed a lack of popular support for both major political parties – the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, which are equally committed to neoliberalism.
They were forced into a “grand coalition” government that has found it very hard to agree on significant free market “reforms”, let alone to implement them.
In Italy, big business hoped that Romano Prodi’s centre left coalition, elected about a year ago, would be a more a reliable agent of economic restructuring than the right under Silvio Berlusconi’s erratic leadership.
But Prodi’s government has been bedevilled by its narrow parliamentary majority and internal divisions.
What happens in France is likely to have a decisive effect on whether this continent-wide stalemate is broken.
The last major attempt to push through neoliberal measures in France was in 1995. It provoked a huge public sector strike that was the first in a series of social explosions that have stalled such plans.
These have included the teachers’ strikes over pensions in May 2003 and last year’s student revolt against the CPE law that attacked the employment rights of young workers.
If Sarkozy succeeds in overcoming such resistance and forcing through his programme of free market reforms, his victory will have reverberations far beyond France’s borders. But he doesn’t start out from that strong a popular base.
In the second round of the presidential elections a fortnight ago, Sarkozy beat the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal by 53 percent to 47 percent.
The pattern is the same as that of every French election since 1974 – a country narrowly divided between left and right, where a relatively small shift in opinion is enough to tilt the balance and deliver victory to one side or the other.
This time the feebleness of Royal’s campaign and the chaos on France’s powerful radical left were enough to tilt the balance towards Sarkozy, who ran an effective and focused campaign.
The centre right candidate François Bayrou – who repackaged himself as an “outsider” from the existing political system – won more than 18 percent of the vote in the first round. This is a symptom of widespread dissatisfaction with both the leading candidates.
But as the right wing daily newspaper Le Figaro pointed out, “Despite his efforts to win over the popular electorate, whom he particularly courted during this presidential race, Sarkozy hardly succeeded in breaking out of the right’s classic territory.
“The sociological profile of the vote in his favour was even narrower than that of Jacques Chirac [when he was first elected president] in 1995.
“With only 40 percent of the votes of 18 to 24 year olds, Sarkozy obtained 15 points less than Chirac in this age group.
“By contrast, Sarkozy strengthened his lead among the oldest voters culminating in 64 percent among voters of older than 65. Voters over 50 constituted 52 percent of his electorate compared to only 37 percent of Royal’s.
“Sarkozy has also lost ground in comparison with Chirac among white collar and blue collar workers, of whose votes the left won respectively 57 and 59 percent.
“Royal succeeded in retaining the support of the popular layers that had massively voted for the left in the regional and European elections of 2004.”
So the idea current in some left wing circles that Sarkozy, like Thatcher before him, has succeeded in winning working-class support for a programme of “authoritarian populism” doesn’t really stand up to examination.
Despite his anti-immigrant demagogy, only 28 percent of French people agree that “there are too many immigrants in France”, compared to 50 percent in 1993 and 31 percent in 1997.
Sarkozy will preside over a society where the left has very deep roots and hostility to neoliberalism is massive.
Indeed, his own presidential campaign sought to accommodate to these feelings. Sarkozy attacked the European Central Bank (ECB) for keeping interest rates too high. He called for “protection” and “community preference” in favour of European products.
As finance minister under Chirac, Sarkozy organised a 3.2 billion euro rescue of the French engineering firm Alstom.
Indeed the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf predicts that “Sarkozy’s triumph portends strife in Europe”.
He fears that Sarkozy is more a “populist interventionist” than an “economic liberal”. Under him France is likely to be “divided internally and intransigent externally”, blocking further EU integration.
Wolf is not the only representative of Europe’s ruling classes to worry that Sarkozy might be a liability.
Within days of his election victory the Financial Times reported, “European finance ministers issued a concerted warning to Sarkozy to stop blaming the ECB for France’s economic problems, in a determined defence of the bank’s independence.”
The limitations of Sarkozy’s victory and the ambiguities of his own politics don’t mean we should underestimate the significance of his election.
After the drift and opportunism of Chirac’s 12 years in power, Sarkozy has brigaded together the French right under strong, determined leadership.
In particular, by adopting some of the racist and authoritarian rhetoric of the fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, Sarkozy was able to contain the challenge to the mainstream right from the National Front.
The Socialist Party, particularly during the presidency of François Mitterrand (1981-95), had cynically used Le Pen to divide and weaken the right.
But Sarkozy’s right wing language isn’t just rhetoric. We can expect a much stronger emphasis on law and order, together with a greater willingness to use state repression against social movements.
Here it is appropriate to compare Sarkozy with Thatcher. She provided the Tories with a strong, self-confident leadership that ruthlessly used the state machine to take on and defeat key groups of workers.
Thatcher attacked steelworkers, miners, printers, dockers – and thereby laid the political basis for the triumph of neoliberalism in Britain.
It’s possible that Sarkozy could achieve the equivalent in France. This would break the European stalemate to the right’s advantage.
But winning an election isn’t enough to achieve such a shift in the balance of class forces. It took Thatcher the best part of her first two administrations (1979-87) to bring this change about in Britain.
There was nothing at all inevitable about her victory. The same is true in Sarkozy’s case. He faces the most combative social movements in Europe that have seen off governments of both right and left.
The real test in the coming years is whether these movements can find the powers of resistance and the strong and coherent political leadership they need to beat Sarkozy.
There is a huge amount riding on the outcome – not just for France but for the rest of Europe.