Governments under Pressure Popular Rage Grows as Global Crisis Worsens
As the global economic crisis deepens, tempers around the world are getting shorter. French and British trade unions are organizing strikes, Putin is sending troops into the streets and Beijing is trying to buy itself calm.
A rally against car import duties in Krasnoyarsk, Russia: Citizens around the world are protesting against their governments' handling of the economic crisis.
In the cabinet of French President's Nicolas Sarkozy, there was talk of a "Black Thursday," and from Sarkozy's perspective, that was exactly what Jan. 29, 2009 turned out to be. Schools were closed, and so were railroads, banks and stock markets. Theaters, radio stations and even ski lifts were shut down temporarily. Trash receptacles were set on fire in Paris once again, and a crowd gathered on the city's famed Place de l'Opéra to sing the "Internationale," the anthem of revolution.
The global financial crisis has already reached France, bringing business failures, mass layoffs for some workers and reduced working hours for others. On that infamous Thursday, it drove up to 2.5 million people into the streets, in cities from Marseilles to Brest and Bordeaux. The situation was not like in May 1968, when France was in a state of emergency. Nevertheless, the country's unions called the demonstrations "historic," characterizing them as the most important protest movement to date against the current French president.
In Russia, dismal labor statistics have driven Communists and anti-government protestors into the streets from Pskov to Volgograd in recent days, and in Moscow members of the left-wing opposition even ventured onto Red Square. They ripped up pictures of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, until police arrested and removed them.
In China, workers returned from festivities marking the spring festival to hear shocking news from their own government. Beijing announced that about 20 million migrant workers -- more than the combined populations of Denmark, Sweden and Norway -- would likely become unemployed in the coming months. The fast pace of economic growth that has lent legitimacy to the Communist Party's hold on power until now has slowed considerably. According to a government spokesman, 2009 will be the "most difficult" year since the turn of the millennium.
About 50 million jobs could be lost worldwide in the next 11 months and more than 200 million people could drift into total poverty, warns the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Guy Ryder, the group's general secretary, believes that these changes represent a "social time bomb," and that the resulting instability could become "extremely hazardous to democracy" in some countries.
In the West, the crisis could cost heads of state their jobs, as was recently the case with the prime minister of Iceland. But what does it mean for the giant countries in the East? Could the regime in Beijing falter as the country faces its greatest challenge since the beginning of market reforms? Are the Russian people terminating their political moratorium with the government, because prices are rising while the ruble falls, or could the middle class even be about to rebel?
Cabinets in London, Moscow, Beijing and Paris have been overcome by a sense of helplessness. Self-confessed workaholic Gordon Brown is trying to cope with calamity by taking constant countermeasures, while Putin sends his police officers into the street and Beijing distributes gifts to the poorest of the poor. French President Sarkozy, on the other hand, remained silent for a full seven days after the first major, large-scale demonstration.
The French president, who usually seizes every possible opportunity to grab the limelight, waited an entire week before finally reacting to nationwide strikes. Last Thursday evening, on instructions from the Elysée Palace, 90 minutes of broadcast time was made available for a television interview, and Sarkozy quickly switched into propaganda offensive mode on multiple TV and radio stations. The gist of his message was that there would be no change in direction, and that the government would continue to emphasize reforms.
In light of what he dubbed a "crisis of brutal proportions," the president knowingly pointed to "hardships" and "worries" and massaged the soul of the nation with therapeutic platitudes. But that was the extent of it, because Sarkozy knows that the Jan. 29 demonstrations did not reach critical mass by a long shot. The motley alliance of protesting professors, nurses, steel workers and students lacked a shared list of economic and political demands. Their banners made a case for wage increases, purchasing power parity or the repeal of tax reforms for the rich. At the same time, however, the protests revealed a deep-seated malaise that penetrates deeply into the conservative electorate of the governing UMP. The overwhelming majority of the French are plagued by fears of unemployment, lower incomes and shrinking savings.
The galloping decline in the economy has further damaged the president's standing. Now that his approval rating has dropped to only 39 percent, Sarkozy is very much on edge. After being booed by angry citizens during a visit to the normally tranquil town of Saint-Lô, the president reacted by imposing a disciplinary transfer on the town's prefect and chief of police.
Two-thirds of the French believe that their government -- despite the 26 billion ($34 billion) economic stimulus package, which even includes plans to renovate churches, government ministries and prisons -- is not engaging in effective crisis management.
Politically speaking, the man in charge at the Elysée Palace will remain unchallenged until 2012. Sarkozy has a solid majority in both the National Assembly and the Senate. The Communists have shrunk to the point of insignificance, and the Socialists are crippled by internecine feuds. This week, however, the alliance of trade unions is discussing new battleground tactics, and it knows that it can depend on the support of the majority of French people.
"The sympathy for the strike movement highlights the ever-deepening rift between the French and their president," warns political scientist and opinion researcher Stéphane Rozès. "We are on the brink of a new epoch, one that will be marked by growing political instability."
'The Fight Goes On'
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's popularity is falling even faster than Sarkozy's. Despite a temporary boost last fall, when Brown showed leadership strength at home and internationally with his plan to recapitalize the banks, fewer and fewer Britons are now confident that the man at 10 Downing Street has the right recipe for the crisis.
According to recent polls, the opposition Tories have further widened their lead to a comfortable 10 to 12 percent, while only one in three Britons would vote for Labour today. The drop in the approval ratings of Brown and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling is especially dramatic on issues of economic competence, where the pair lost a full 12 percentage points within only a month.
These are disconcerting numbers, especially for Brown's Labour party, which almost kicked the prime minister out of office last summer. Coming to grips with the public's growing anger will be one of the prime minister's most important tasks. Although Brown's smart, academic analyses against protectionism are impressive to listeners in places like Davos, the premier is increasingly alienating concerned traditional voters like the folks in Lincolnshire.
In better times, for example, the strike in front of the Lincolnshire refinery would have elicited nothing but a shrug from most British workers. The operator of the plant, the French energy company Total, had wanted to use 300 skilled workers from Italy and Portugal, provided by an Italian subcontractor, for a construction project. According to the unions, the workers were being paid less than they should have been, which Total denied.
After days of unruly strikes, the parties reached an agreement last Wednesday, in which Total agreed to provide 102 additional jobs for British workers. It was a courtesy gesture by the company to preserve the peace. Under the current law, there was nothing illegal about temporarily employing the Italian and Portuguese workers.
The 102 additional jobs are the price the company paid for social peace, but whether it will last is more than questionable. "We may have won the battle, but the fight goes on," says Shaune Clarkson of the GMB union. No one knows whether the message has reached Brown in London, where more and more observers believe that the prime minister lost touch with the public long ago.
- Part 1: Popular Rage Grows as Global Crisis Worsens
- Part 2: Buying Patience