It’s been a rough time for European leaders trying to keep their troubled economies afloat.
In just over a year, five European leaders or ruling parties have been forced out of office in countries that include Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy and the Netherlands.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy could well be next. He finished second in his bid last Sunday to win re-election, and opinion polls show him trailing in the runoff election set for May 6.
All of the European leaders have imposed some level of austerity measures in an attempt to deal with big debts, but the moves have proved deeply unpopular with voters.
“What you’ve got is that the center is crumbling,” says economist Desmond Lachman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The French elections would be very emblematic of what’s happening elsewhere.”
“Europeans are now suffering from austerity fatigue, and people are questioning whether this is the right way to go,” he adds.
In France, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande won the first round of presidential voting and is favored in the runoff. He says that instead of cutting spending, France and other countries need to focus on stimulus measures to lift their economies out of the doldrums.
He has promised to re-negotiate the European budgetary stability pact, which mandated austerity throughout the 17 countries that use the euro.
Potential Conflict With Germany
If Hollande wins, France could find itself on a collision course with Germany, the main architect of the austerity policy.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have worked closely on the eurozone’s crisis response and have often been referred to as “Merkozy.”
After the French vote last Sunday, Merkel stuck to her guns on the need for austerity, saying European governments need to cut deficits and debt if they are to remain credible.
The French election introduced another wild card, the unexpectedly strong showing by right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, who garnered 18 percent of the vote.
Irene Finel Honigman, an expert on French politics, says the surge of Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Front was partly the result of last month’s killings of French soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse.
But Finel Honigman, a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, says a significant number of French voters cast their ballots for either far-right or far-left candidates who oppose the eurozone and want to roll back austerity measures.
Between Le Pen’s 18 percent and the 11 percent that went to Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Front, “nearly 30 percent of voters are voting for extreme measures,” she says.
If Sarkozy is to win the runoff, he’ll have to pull some votes from Le Pen’s far-right base. But that may not be easy, especially since rightists see Sarkozy as having reneged on promises he made to right-wing voters in the past.
If Sarkozy moves further to the right and manages to win, that could change the dynamic of his relations with Merkel.
The Dutch Government’s Collapse
It was a far-right party that brought down the Netherlands government last weekend.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned after right-wing politician Geert Wilders withdrew support for budget cuts.
Wilders’ party, like Le Pen’s in France, are “Euro skeptics” who are wary of giving up too much control to the European Union, saying it has damaged their countries’ political and economic sovereignty.
The Netherlands, like France, is an affluent country that is in no danger of collapsing. But the Netherlands has been running a deficit that’s 4.6 percent of GDP this year, well above the 3 percent target set for eurozone countries.
A Dutch caretaker government has managed to pull together a 2013 budget that is said to include pay freezes and other cost controls. But discussion about real cuts may have to wait until after a general election in September.
Lachman, the analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says it would be cheaper for Europe to write off large amounts of the debts of countries such as Greece and Portugal, or to allow some of them to leave the currency union.
“But there’s a huge political dimension to this,” Lachman says. “They bailed out Greece a second time — even though the Europeans know this isn’t going to work — because they wanted to get beyond the French elections. Now there will be an effort to get beyond the German elections [in 2013].”
This week, Britain officially slipped back into recession, joining Spain in negative growth during the first quarter. Other eurozone countries have yet to release their figures for the first three months of the year.
A weaker economy in Europe would dampen U.S. exports and hurt returns on U.S. investments in Europe. It could also harm President Obama’s case that the U.S. is steadily making its way to economic recovery.