Dutch, French Socialists Demand More Leftist Policies

European left-wing leaders have little choice but to defy their own parties’ wishes.

French Socialist Party leader François Hollande during a discussion with European counterparts, May 5, 2011
French Socialist Party leader François Hollande during a discussion with European counterparts, May 5, 2011 (Party of European Socialists)

Socialist leaders in France and the Netherlands can ill afford to respect their parties’ wishes and take a more leftist policy stand, either in Europe or in coalition.

France’s Socialists, who won both last year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, urge President François Hollande in a policy document that’s set to be adopted at a conference in June, to resist the “self-centered intransigence” of German chancellor Angela Merkel and push for more stimulatory economic policy in Europe instead. “The friendship between France and Germany is not a friendship between France and the European policy of Chancellor Merkel,” it argues.

Hollande was critical of Merkel’s insistence on budget consolidation while running for president last year but has adopted a more conciliatory tone since assuming office, to the chagrin of many in his party.

“France must be able to fight against the European right’s point of view,” National Assembly speaker Claude Bartolone told Le Monde newspaper in an interview that was published on Thursday. “Austerity alone could condemn the beautiful idea that is Europe rather than save it,” he added.

Some in Hollande’s cabinet agree. Industry minister Arnaud Montebourg, an anti-globalist who ran to Hollande’s left in the party’s 2011 primary election, told the same newspaper earlier this month that the president’s budgetary “rigor” was leading the country “collectively into a recessionary spiral.”

“What is the point of fiscal consolidation if the economy goes to the dogs?” Montebourg wondered. “Budget discipline is one thing. Cutting to death is another.”

Benoît Hamon, a junior social economy minister, complained to Le Parisien newspaper, “Germany is demanding we sprint at a time when France needs to get its breath back.”

France has asked the European Commission to give it one more year to bring its deficit under the 3 percent of gross domestic product limit enshrined in European fiscal law. Last year, its shortfall was equivalent to 4.8 percent of annual economic output, in spite of “austerity” measures which consisted largely of tax increases.

The Dutch social democrats, who joined Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s fiscally conservative liberal party in government last year, similarly favor more “breathing room” for the northwestern European country to reduce its deficit which is expected to reach 3.3 percent of GDP this year. But even if both the party’s leader Diederik Samsom and its finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem argue against short-term spending cuts, they recognize that it would be “unwise” to let the deficit rise next year. Their party members rebel not so much against its lukewarm support for austerity, rather the government’s planned criminalization of illegal aliens.

In opposition to Rutte’s previous, right-wing cabinet, the Labor Party vehemently criticized plans to criminalize illegal immigration. Samsom acquiesced in coalition talks last year when the liberals offered a pardon for minors who were staying in the country illegally.

A majority of Labor Party members is nevertheless expected to call upon the leadership during a conference on Saturday to block the government’s proposal. Former party leader Job Cohen, also formerly a junior justice minister, argued on the Nieuwsuur television program on Thursday that penalizing illegal aliens would “add nothing to existing law” which he said is already “very strict.”

Samsom may agree but will have to defy his own party. He recognizes that many liberal voters are already dissatisfied with the coalition. If he forces Rutte’s party to make another concession to the left, rightwingers might revolt while neither ruling party stands to benefit from new elections. Polls suggest that Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party could surpass the liberals while the far-left Socialists would likely prevent Samsom from winning a plurality of the seats in parliament instead.

Economic reality similarly prevents Hollande from meeting the expectations of his base. French public-sector spending is unsustainable and its industry and labor market in need of liberal economic reforms to improve the nation’s competitiveness relative to other eurozone member states.

Moreover, Hollande cannot sever relations with Angela Merkel’s Germany further. A Franco-German split would imperil stability in Europe.