Analysis: European austerity protests far from revolution

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 12, 2012 5:44 PM
Analysis: European austerity protests far from revolution

By Nicholas Vinocur and Mark John

PARIS (Reuters) - In a cafe near the former site of Paris's Bastille prison, activists held a meeting last month to decide whether to join unions in protesting the French government's belt-tightening.

Only five people turned up at Cafe Maldoror, a favored haunt of the radical left.

Even in the city whose revolutionary credentials date back to the 1789 uprising that began at the gates of its famous prison, calls to build a European-wide popular front against the toughest budget cuts in a generation are falling on deaf ears.

"In France people...are frustrated, they are worried about the country and about their economic situation, but for the moment ...most people are not looking for revolutionary change," said Gaston, a 36-year-old librarian at the meeting who took part in a poorly attended protest at the Bastille last year.

Millions of Europeans feel impoverished as countries which broke budget rules for years are prodded into public spending cuts to win back investor confidence in their sovereign debt.

Bursts of street anger have rocked Greece and Spain, two southern countries whose citizens are paying dearly for the profligacy of their past leaders.

Athens police last week fired tear gas to disperse protestors throwing petrol bombs outside parliament. Strikes and marches in Greece and Spain triggered a September 26 sell-off in the euro and European and U.S. stock markets.

Activists want to spread the protests across Europe's national borders. The Greek strikers were seen holding Italian, Portuguese and Spanish flags last week.

But there has been little resonance on the streets of the richer nations of north Europe, whose ageing populations and politically moderate youth are less interested in protest.

So far the protests fall short of antecedents such as those in 1968 against U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese war which in Europe mutated into a force for wider social change, or the 1990s anti-globalization marches through many of its cities.

Such momentum is lacking in the anti-austerity movement. Calls by protest groups in Spain for a European general strike on November 14 have gone largely unanswered. Marches are planned but trade unions have not opted for a strike.

There is even less sympathy in Germany, where many feel their country has already made the painful reforms needed on public finances and polls show strong backing for Chancellor Angela Merkel's demands for European neighbors to do the same.


Demographics may help explain why the activists are struggling to find support.

In 1960, there were on average three Europeans under the age of 14 for every pensioner, European Union data show. It was this generation of post-World War Two baby-boomers who, eight years later, were the foot soldiers of the 1968 revolts.

Today's youth no longer have numbers on their side. Lower birth rates and higher longevity mean the median age in Europe has risen from 31 years at the end of the 1960s to 40 now. By 2060, there will be two pensioners for every youngster.

Nonetheless, they have plenty of reasons to be angry. Youth unemployment, almost negligible in much of Europe in the 1960s, now stands at 23 percent across the 17 members of the euro zone. One in two young Spaniards and Greeks are out of work.

It is also dawning on Europe's young that the debt built up by successive governments puts their future welfare provision at risk. Those with jobs are seeing tougher labor conditions as firms struggle to compete with low-wage international rivals.

While the sense of alarm has reached better-off youths in northern Europe, it is often tempered by a mood of resignation and inability to define a political alternative.

"People around me are worried, particularly about the prospect of the welfare state being dismantled," said Fabien Perillat, 24, a jobless engineering graduate in Paris who joined left-wing rallies during France's presidential election in 2011.

"(But) at heart, they wonder if there is any alternative to austerity."

While surveys show Europe's youths tend to vote on the left, the Marxism that fired past generations has fewer takers since the fall of the Soviet Union, as witnessed by declining poll scores of the remaining Communist parties across the continent.

French UNEF student union president Emmanuel Zemmour - whose predecessor Jacques Sauvageot was at the helm of France's 1968 protests - said many students were not driven by any ideology.

"We are a generation that has only ever known triumphant liberalism," Zemmour, 24, said of free market policies espoused to some extent by much of the West since the 1980s.

"Young people are practical, not ideological. They want the right to work, to get the same benefits as others, to be able to study without struggling."

Europe's old "68-ers" look at their own family and agree.

"My daughter is worried about jobs, about living in a country where welfare is unraveling," filmmaker Romain Goupil, who at 16 led French high school students in the 1968 protests, said. "She is part of a reactionary generation."


If revolutionary fervor is lacking in Europe's youth, the labor groups that have in the past been the other major source of street protest are not the forces they used to be.

In late 1995, France's transport networks were paralyzed for weeks as unions led strikes and protests against welfare cuts by President Jacques Chirac's conservative government.

Yet a 2007 law has since taken much of the bite out of union threats of strikes by requiring them to ensure a basic service for public transport. Subsequent legislation has granted education services and airlines similar protection.

Moreover the law forced unions to declare any protest well in advance, allowing one of the world's best equipped police forces to plan meticulous surveillance and control over marches.

"France's trade unions have been considerably weakened in the past decade. They face a crisis of confidence," Stephane Sirot, a sociologist specialized in protest movements at the Universite de Cergy-Pontoise, said.

While the marches against ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy's pensions reform in 2010 drew more people than any other in French history, his government was able to sit them out and pass the reform unchanged - a bitter defeat for the protest movement.

Across Europe, trade unions acknowledge they are struggling to appeal to young workers, many of whom do not enjoy the same labor protection of their older counterparts, and are failing to connect with Europe's growing army of jobless.

At threatened factories such as Peugeot PSA's plant in Aulnay, near Paris, union leaders have warned of a "shock" campaign to force the company to save their jobs. But so far, protests have been limited and stopped short of disruption.

An April poll of 600 European managers conducted for U.S.-based insurer Ace Group highlighted austerity-related protests as one concern for business, noting 32 percent of those surveyed cited the threat of terrorism and political violence as the most relevant or important risk to their businesses.

So far there is little evidence that the prospect of unrest in Europe driving companies away from the continent.

While U.S. carmaker Ford has announced plans to scrap 6,200 jobs in Europe to reflect tough auto sector and wider economic conditions, its decision to shift some output to low-cost Spain underlined that social tensions there were not a concern.

"I think we were satisfied with the environment that we see in Spain. Just as we are in all of Western Europe. I guess I should say it just wasn't a factor," said Chief Financial Officer Bob Shanks.

"Frankly, most of Europe has managed the social pressures of a very, very difficult environment relatively well so far."

(Additional reporting by Paul Day in Madrid; Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Deepa Seetharaman in Detroit; Editing by Anna Willard)