Fighting (for?) Europe How European Elites Lost a Generation
Part 3: The Search for More Democracy
It's time for the pamphlet written by 93-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Hessel, "Indignez-vous!" ("Time for Outrage!"), to have its effect in France, after having triggered the protests in Spain.
It's time for Boyer, a former engineer and current freelance web designer and manager of the website http:// lyon.reelledemocratie.com, to spend every evening with outraged citizens on Place Bellecour, with 20, 200 or 300 people, depending on the weather. It is the "assertiveness of people thinking for themselves," in cities like Rouen, Angers, Lille and Montpellier, that Boyer finds so appealing.
They are sitting at the base of a statue of Louis XIV, holding an "Assemblée générale," or general assembly, and saying the things that matter to them into the microphone: Solidarity with the outraged citizens in Spain! In Belgium! Greece! Should alcohol be banned during the assembly? What do we do about plastic garbage? What could a society look like in which everyone has a real, paid job? Who is bringing food for dinner tomorrow?
They talk, sometimes with the furor of people trying to shake off a colonizer or a dictator. The word democracy keeps reappearing, even though they know perfectly well that they live in a democracy. It just isn't the one they want.
It's dark now, after 10 p.m., and while the Democracy Task Force earnestly discusses the environmental crisis, the power of lobbies and banks and the weakness of representative democracy, another task force is on the move in the pedestrian zone on Rue Victor Hugo, turning off lights. They have discovered how to switch off neon signs. They leave behind flyers and slogans scrawled in pink chalk, as they turn off the signs of commerce, at a shoe store, at a travel agency and at a pasta store. Click. They believe that there are too many lights on in the world at night, and that saving electricity helps reduce the need for nuclear power plants. Click. Too much light in the world. The fireflies are dying out. Click.
Impossible to Influence
Boyer, a Frenchman and a European like millions of others, talks of decentralization, civic activism, but no parties. He wants direct democracy, politics at the grassroots, a Europe governed by the base.
Europe -- the word itself has a pleasant ring to it. The EU allows countries to grow together, which Boyer likes, in theory, but he doesn't like the way they are doing it. For him, today's Europe is the opposite of direct democracy, a place where decisions are made by impenetrable committees that are almost impossible to influence.
Boyer has no answer to the question of whether this Europe can be tamed, with more referendums and more civic activism. But that, at least, is the hope of the many who convene on public squares and network on Facebook, and it's the hope at reelledemocratie.fr.
Real democracy. It's a big word, and he knows it. Is the world out there receptive to the idea? In Lyon? In France? In Europe?
Until then, the screws of debt continue tightening, and in the world of networked markets, it operates almost like a law of nature, as the lenders lose confidence in the borrowers. The rating agencies, sharply criticized after the global financial crisis for having been too lax, are now doing their jobs as demanded and downgrading the credit ratings of some countries on the strength of solid arguments. This prompts investors to demand higher interest rates as a premium for their willingness to assume risk, as well as to cushion the blow of possible payment defaults in advance. The high interest rates, in turn, only further increase the debt burdens of beleaguered countries. To them, it feels as if they were stuck in a trap with no way out.
The Real Crash
It is a feeling with which the Greeks are already familiar. Every evening for the last two-and-a-half weeks, Kostas Dekoumes has gone to Syntagma Square, the Greek version of Cairo's Tahrir Square. "There were 500,000 of us on Sunday," says Dekoumes, "half a million people." He says that he is neither a leftist nor a right-winger. In fact, he says, politics doesn't really interest him.
Dekoumes, 24, is wearing flip-flops and a black T-shirt, and he has piercings, tattoos and a full beard. Until now, there were plenty of things more important to him than demonstrations, things like rock music and motorcycles, whose tires he repaired in his father's workshop.
His parents, who vote for the Social Democrats, always explained things to him on the few occasions when he had questions about politics. Now he calls his friends every day and tells them to come to the square with him.
Dekoumes talks about freedom, about Angela Merkel and the International Monetary Fund. Standing on the balcony of his parents' apartment, where he still lives, he blows smoke from his cigarette into the sky over Athens.
His mother, a bookkeeper, still has her job. But his father, who has been selling motorcycle tires for 20 years, recently had to let three of his employees go. And although he didn't lay off his son Kostas, he did reduce his wages. Which explains why Kostas is only driving a small scooter these days, instead of the big motorcycle he used to drive. He bought his first motorcycle at 17, an Aprilia RS 125, a street bike. He sold it to buy a better one, a process which continued until a few months ago, when he lost his fifth motorcycle in an accident. He could only afford a scooter after that. This is the biggest crisis for Dekoumes, the real crash.
He says that his grandparents were guest workers who worked in factory near Düsseldorf in western Germany. They were poor and they worked hard, but by the time they returned to Greece, the lives of their children, Kostas' parents, had improved. Things have always gone uphill for them, he says, while everything seems to be going downhill for him.
One of Europe's Fools
Dekoumes says he knows that there is really no solution for Greece. His country's debts are already so high that he can't even comprehend the number. Bankruptcy will come, but when it does, he says, he still wants to be a proud Greek -- not someone reduced to driving around the city on a moped.
And not someone who is dependent on the government, "on the assholes I didn't vote for," he says, or on Europe or Angela Merkel, who, for Dekoumes, is the face of evil. This is his image of Europe: There is another government above his own government, one that is much worse than the Greek government, and that government is headed by Angela Merkel -- the worst of them all.
The Greeks, he says, bought their washing machines, their cars and their traffic lights from the Germans. The only reason the Germans are doing so well, he says, is because the Greeks exist. "Now they're doing their next deal with us."
For Dekoumes, who prefers to walk rather than be seen driving a scooter, the most important thing is his dignity. He doesn't want to feel like one of Europe's fools.
Evening has come, and Dekoumes trades his flip-flops for his Nikes, grabs his backpack and his camera and, driving his parents' car, picks up his friend Psi, a student. They smoke in the car and don't say much to each other. The streetlights are plastered with Signs that read "Óxi!" or "No!" -- a reference to the Greek sellout. "We own nothing. We are selling nothing. We pay nothing!" The word "Óxi," written in red ink, appears throughout the entire city. The Greeks have become the people of No.
In the past, "Óxi!" was a symbol of resistance against Mussolini's occupiers.