France welcomes Syriza as Hollande looks to role of consensus-seeker

French communist party leader Pierre Laurent ‘absolutely thrilled’

French president François  Hollande:    invited Alexis Tsipras to visit Paris soon and promised “that France will be beside Greece in this important period for its future”.  Ian Langsdon/Reuters

French president François Hollande: invited Alexis Tsipras to visit Paris soon and promised “that France will be beside Greece in this important period for its future”. Ian Langsdon/Reuters

 

The victory of the far-left Syriza in Greece is seen in France as an opportunity for President François Hollande to play a more important role in Europe.

During his 2012 election campaign, Hollande – like Alexis Tsipras in Greece – promised to renegotiate the EU budgetary pact that enforces austerity policies. His failure to do so was “the original sin of his five-year term”, says Pascal Riché, an editorialist at L’Obs magazine. “It was his brutal snapping to attention that caused his spectacular descent in public opinion.”

Thomas Piketty, the French economist and author of global bestseller Capital in the 21st Century, told France Inter radio: “It’s time for François Hollande to admit he didn’t renegotiate the budgetary pact and that it hasn’t worked.”

Over-ambitious deficit-reduction targets were established in back-room talks by a handful of leaders, Piketty says. “If it had been done in the light of day, in an open, public debate, we would have less austerity, more growth, less unemployment,” he said. “The austerity cure that was imposed on Greece and the euro zone has been a catastrophe . . . we must seize this opportunity to change the way we’ve organised Europe and the euro zone.”

Social liberalism

In 2012, Hollande intended to lead a bloc of southern European countries as a counterweight to Germany. He instead converted to supply-side economics and “social liberalism”.

Hollande strengthened his image during the crisis over Islamist attacks that killed 17 people in France this month. Now Syriza’s victory gives him a second chance to attempt the role of consensus-seeker in Europe. Several commentators spoke of a “historic responsibility” to reconcile Greece and Germany, southern and northern Europe.

Hollande phoned Tsipras on Monday afternoon, inviting him to visit Paris soon and promising “that France will be beside Greece in this important period for its future”.

Syriza’s victory was celebrated by the French far left as if it were their own. Pierre Laurent, the leader of the moribund French communist party, said he was “absolutely thrilled”.

The Greek election has “opened a breach in Euro-liberalism,” wrote Jean-Paul Piérot, editorialist for the communist daily L’Humanité.

“It makes it possible to question . . . the dogma of liberal Europe, of free and undistorted competition that the French rejected by referendum 10 years ago . . . Thank you Greece!”

The far right also celebrated Syriza’s victory. “I am delighted by the enormous, democratic slap the Greek people have just given to the EU,” said Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing National Front.

But French taxpayers must not be expected to pay Greece’s debts, several leaders of the conservative UMP cautioned. International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde sounded uncompromising in an interview with Le Monde, saying “there are internal rules within the euro zone to be respected. We cannot make special categories for specific countries.”

Debt forgiveness

It would take 50-60 years for Greece to reimburse its debt in current conditions, said Piketty, noting that German debt was forgiven after the second World War.

He supports an idea first raised by German economists: that EU countries with debts higher than 60 per cent of gross domestic product pool their debt and pay a common interest rate of zero to 1 per cent.

“This solution doesn’t mean reimbursing each others’ debts,” Piketty explained. “We keep accounts. Tax revenue goes towards each country’s debt. But there is a common interest rate . . . As long as we have a single currency but 18 different public debts and 18 different interest rates, there will be financial crises . . . You cannot have a single currency and compete on everything else.”