Beware the European Street

Everyone knows about the "Arab Street," to which most policymakers listen with care. But now may be the time of the European street. More and more disenchanted citizens are deciding that the politics of the street make more sense than their ruling politicians. Europe's elite may have just made its annual pilgrimage to Davos, but no one is listening to the incantations from the Swiss Alps. Instead, the European public has staged angry demonstrations in more and more countries.

The latest and most symbolic nation to be hit is France— for history suggests that when the French take to the streets, the rest of Europe can soon find itself in a new political era. President Nicolas Sarkozy began the new year boasting about his six-month presidency of the EU. He ended January with every French city and most towns being filled with public displays of outrage. Sarkozy once sarcastically remarked that "when the French go on strike, no one notices." But that's no longer true now that workers from large, privately owned firms have joined the unemployed, students, environmentalists and protected public-sector employees in wellcoordinated strikes and marches. For the first time in more than two decades, the Socialists, the main opposition party, have also thrown their organizational weight behind street actions. Opinion polls say 65 percent of French citizens support the protest movement, even if they didn't all turn out in subzero temperatures to take part.

Only yesterday, it seemed, Sarkozy had French politics in his grip as he tempted left and liberal politicians into his government. His speeches were peppered with leftist tropes as he denounced "finance capitalism" and announced a new economic era with all the fervor of a Paris intellectual regurgitating vulgar Marxism. But Sarkozy's efforts to define a leftism-lite have failed to win converts as the global recession has hit France. Unemployment may be rising faster in Spain, but the French economy has skidded to a halt even as Paris has given tax breaks to the rich and imposed welfare and spending cuts.

Farther east, the situation is equally grim in Greece, which is still paralyzed by strikes and protests that began two months ago, when students rose up against the police killing of a student. The rightist Greek government has watched helplessly as Athens drifts out of its control. Greece's main traffic artery has been blocked for days by angry farmers who joined the fray, sealing off the capital with tractors as they demanded government help to offset falling world agricultural prices.

A decade ago, the European hard left seemed to have been marginalized by reformist modernizers like Tony Blair in Britain, Gerhard Schröder in Germany and the post-communist Social Democrats of Italy. Now the radicals are back with a vengeance. Germany's fastest-growing party is Die Linke, a hard-line leftist organization that won 15 percent of the vote in last year's elections. The French Socialists have spent five years squabbling among themselves in a battle of "Moi, moi, moi," to which French voters have paid no attention. But into the vacuum has stepped the NPA—the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste—founded by a young street tribune, a postal worker named Olivier Besancenot, who is uniting many disparate political currents into a force that, like the French Communist Party of old, could win up to a fifth of all French votes in the next election. The NPA and other new left movements are reviving direct action against the state. Yet their demands are inchoate, and there's little Sarkozy could do to satisfy them except completely reverse his policies of the past two years.

This new-old left has also begun making common cause with anti-Western Islamist ideologues whose rhetoric has found purchase among Europe's 20 million Muslims. Evidence of this new alliance was on display during recent anti-Israel demonstrations that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets bearing ugly slogans in Britain, Italy and Germany.

Perhaps the most surprising victims of this wave of public anger have been the Baltic tigers, once Davos Man's feted heroes. Vilnius and Riga have both been contorted by nasty fights between police and demonstrators in recent weeks as tear-gas attacks and mass arrests have been used to clear the streets. The proximate cause of the anger in Eastern Europe has varied, but the result has been the same: further breakdown in order and confidence in the authority of the state.

Davos haters and the sirens of the end of capitalism see the move of Europe's politics into the streets as the harbinger of regime change. But prophets of doom should hold their breath. Remember that the 1968 protests in France ushered in a further 13 years of conservative rule, not a revolution.

Europe's protesters may have reason to feel let down by the policies of their leaders. But those angry with Sarkozy and his ilk need to offer more than slogans and noise in response. Europe's new activists have yet to answer Lenin's question: "What is to be done?" Which means that what looks like a leftist revival may end up where the last one did. While populist politicians may have lured common folk into the streets, there's no evidence as yet that this support will translate into votes in the polling booth.