Today’s leader in The Economist exhorts the Italians to sack Silvio Berlusconi in next Sunday’s elections. According to The Economist – the weekly that calls itself a “newspaper” – Italy needs economic reform and Berlusconi is not ready to push it. The magazine certainly has a point. There is no denying that il Cavaliere has failed to liberate the Italian economy from the shackles of state interference. However, there is no reason to believe that his rival, former EU Commission president Romano Prodi, will do a better job. Berlusconi was a disappointment, but Prodi will not be the “bold economic reformer of the kind that Italy desperately needs.”
The Economist acknowledges this, saying that “Italians have a rotten choice to make.” It correctly points out that if Prodi wins he is going to depend on the support of the unreformed Communists. Forced to choose between Communist hardliners and Silvio Berlusconi, the choice seems pretty obvious. However, while there was no need for the global “newspaper” in London to give voting advice, it wants Italy to pick Prodi. Our “newspaper” takes another position. The Brussels Journal agrees with The Economist that one of Berlusconi’s “better points” is his “more sceptical approach to Brussels,” while Prodi, being a socialist, is “a faithful believer in a European federal superstate.” Some of my Italian friends, who voted for Berlusconi five years ago, told me that they will not bother to vote this time. Not being an Italian myself, however, it seems pretty clear whom freedom loving Eurosceptics should back next Sunday. Why, I wonder, does The Economist back the other side?
Meanwhile in France, the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is still standing firm. He has made it clear that he will battle on to the end to save his youth labour law (CPE). The latter constitutes the first step towards the much needed economic reform in France. The CPE will enable French employers to lower the cost of job creation by allowing them to hire first-time employees under the age of 26 for a conditional two-year period during which they can be fired without compensation and without the employer having to provide a reason.
Left-wing student organisations and trade unions have been rioting violently against the CPE for weeks, preferring no jobs to jobs under “Anglo-Saxon” conditions. In an attempt to quell the street protests, French president Jacques Chirac proposed to limit the trial period to one year rather than two and oblige the employer to provide a reason when firing employees. Chirac suspended the CPE until Villepin modifies the law in this sense. Nevertheless the left has been demanding the complete withdrawal of the CPE.
According to a recent poll in the leftist newspaper Libération 72% of French voters are not satisfied with Villepin’s social and economic policies. The CPE, however, was approved by a majority in Parliament. Though parliamentary majorities do not necessarily reflect public opinion they tend to do so more adequately than polls published by leftist papers. Nevertheless, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, Villepin’s political rival for the center-right nomination in next year’s presidential elections, has called for constitutional reform in order to “reconnect voters to their government.” Sarkozy said an “exhausted” political system has caused a “crisis of political representation.”
Sarkozy’s analysis about the “exhaustion” of France’s political system might be correct. It is ironic, however, that he is using the first attempt at adequate (so-called “Anglo-Saxon”) economic reform by the French parliament and government to subvert the authority of these institutions in the clash with vandalising students and socialist trade unions. The latter have given Villepin until Easter to withdraw the CPE.
Sarkozy is being criticised from the right for his “appeasement of the street.” According to Philippe de Villiers of the Mouvement pour la France (MPF) “Sarkozy has stabbed Villepin in the back at the crucial moment.” Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National said “Chirac has betrayed the whole world. Hence it is not surprising that he betrays Villepin, while Sarkozy does not want to miss the chance to trip up his competitor.”
The current clash in France is one over political primacy between an elected parliament and government versus the street and the unions. It is a battle that will have repercussions all over Europe. John Monks, the head of the European Trade Union Confederation, has said that the anti-CPE movement in France “has the support of all the European trade unions.” Consequently, all freedom loving Europeans should be on the side of Villepin and the French “silent majority,” which organisations such as Liberté Chérie are trying to rally. Liberté Chérie has called for a protest march next Sunday of the “silent majority” against the blockades and obstructions of the unions
French history indicates that the street and the unions will win, but so far Villepin seems to be made of sterner stuff than expected. If Berlusconi had been made of the same stuff he might have stood a better chance in next Sunday’s elections.