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European voters reject austerity

By Mike Andrew

In a series of May elections, European voters rejected the austerity policies that have brought the continent’s working families to the brink of catastrophe.

On May 6, Socialist Francois Hollande was elected President of France, defeating Nicolas Sarkozy, the co-architect of European austerity with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Europe is watching us, austerity can no longer be the only option,” Hollande said in his victory speech. Instead, Hollande promised to refocus European fiscal priorities from budget-cutting to “growth.”

During the campaign, Hollande promised to raise taxes on big corporations and people earning more than one million euros a year.

He also wants to raise the minimum wage, hire 60,000 more teachers, and lower the retirement age from 62 to 60 for most workers.

Sarkozy had promised to balance the French budget by 2016 by raising social security taxes and the regressive VAT tax – essentially a sales tax. Sarkozy had raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010, with the predictable result that unemployment among young workers increased to 23%.

Sarkozy was also in favor of limiting immigration into France from Southern Europe and North Africa.

In Greece – ground zero of the European economic crisis – voters also went to the polls May 6, rejecting the draconian austerity program forced on them by the EU in return for a “bailout” of the faltering Greek banking system.

The two mainstream parties that had forged a “national unity” government to implement the EU-backed austerity program – right-wing New Democracy and socialist PASOK – were rejected by voters, and found themselves without enough seats in parliament to be able to form a new government.

Instead, the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), once considered a marginal party, vaulted into a second place finish by promising to reject the EU’s austerity package.

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras is now considered the odds-on favorite to become Prime Minister after new elections in July.

If the “disease of austerity destroys Greece, it will spread to the rest of Europe,” Tsipras warned in a BBC interview after the election.

Banks were profiting at the expense of thousands of European workers – in Spain and Italy, as well as Greece – leaving them in poverty and hardship, he said.

“Therefore the European leadership, and especially Mrs Merkel, need to stop playing poker with the lives of people,” Tsipras said.

SYRIZA rejected the idea that if Greeks fail to adhere to the austerity program that has led to 22% unemployment – and over 50% unemployment among workers under 25 – they will have to go it alone outside the EU.

“Our choice is to stay in Europe without austerity policies,” Tsipras said. “We are in favor of the euro without the austerity that is destroying it. We are convinced that if the austerity policies continue then the eurozone will be destroyed.”

Only three days before the French and Greek elections, British voters slammed the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government in elections for municipal council members.

The opposition Labor Party, which campaigned against the government’s all-cuts budget, kept the majority in every local council they controlled and picked up majorities in 22 others. The Lib Dems were especially hard-hit, losing majorities in every local council they previously controlled.

Even Angela Merkel suffered a significant defeat, when voters in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, chose the opposition Social Democrats to lead the state government.

“This is a crashing defeat for Mrs. Merkel and her minister,” Social Democrat party leader Andrea Nahles said. “The likelihood has become significantly greater that the next chancellor will be a Social Democrat.”

Merkel said on May 16 that she was ready to discuss stimulus programs to get the Greek economy growing again and that she was committed to keeping Greece in the euro zone.

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