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Thomas Molloy: EU leaders get a kicking from cuts-weary public

POLITICAL events in France and the Netherlands over the past 48 hours prove that weariness with austerity is more than just an Irish problem. It is not even a problem limited to the bailout countries; it is now affecting politics in Europe's core.

In France, following the first round of the presidential elections on Sunday, it is now a racing certainty that the tax-and-spend socialist Francois Hollande will replace austerity-supporting Nicolas Sarkozy in second round elections next month. In the Netherlands, the government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which rarely lost an opportunity to tick off Greece and Portugal for not slashing enough from their budgets, collapsed after coalition parties could not agree on austerity measures which are remarkably mild by Irish or Greek standards.

That Mr Hollande would replace President Sarkozy had been clear for some time but the stock markets were rattled by Mr Rutte's departure the same day because it served as confirmation that Europe's northern and Protestant core is in trouble but in no mood to tighten belts.

"It is Holland that is the problem, not Hollande," was how one trader put it succinctly.

We have been so wrapped up in our own misery that we often fail to understand that Europeans everywhere have been hard hit by the five-year financial crisis.

The crisis has had a fatal effect on whatever political party happened to be in power in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. In the UK, Labour was decimated in the last general election. Governments have also been swept aside in Spain, Portugal, Finland, Slovenia and Denmark while technocratic governments have been installed in Italy and Greece.

No established party has been wiped out quite like Fianna Fail was here but no governing party in western Europe other than the CDU in Germany has managed to retain power either. The political earthquakes have created some fairly peculiar coalitions even within the select and shrinking group of countries which still have economies with the coveted AAA tag from at least one of the rating agencies.

The Dutch government depended on the anti-EU Freedom Party and its flamboyant anti-Islamic leader Geert Wilders until yesterday. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen stole the show by winning 18pc of the vote, the biggest tally a far-right candidate has ever managed. In Finland, the populist True Finn party came third although it remains outside government. Back home, Sinn Fein is also polling well on an anti-austerity message that seems to be hitting home with a significant number of voters.

When a pattern is repeated again and again, it is worth looking at the underlying causes. What is happening in Paris and the Hague at the moment is clearly a reaction to the financial crisis rather than any political shift among the Dutch or the French to events within their own countries. The good news, and opportunity, for opposition leaders everywhere is that people are weary with cuts, job uncertainty, immigration and change. The bad news is that these problems and challenges are so fundamental that there is little that politicians can do without help from other countries. Cuts are necessary. Changes to technology and the world order mean that the nature of work is changing. Immigration, both legal and illegal, will continue as transport improves and the global population continues to rise at an unsustainable rate.

Just as Fine Gael's landslide has been replicated elsewhere, so too has the dissatisfaction felt with the Government after a few short months in office. Mr Rutte's government, for example, was only two years old before it fell. It seems politicians everywhere are finding it even more difficult than usual to govern in prose after campaigning in poetry.

Mr Hollande says clearly that he does not like the rich but told an audience in London recently that they had nothing to fear from him -- prompting President Sarkozy to land a rare punch during the presidential campaign by accusing his rival of talking like former socialist president Francois Mitterand in France and former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher in England.

Mr Hollande is not alone. During last year's general election campaign, Michael Noonan blew hot and cold on forcing bondholders to face the consequences of their bad investment decisions. Once elected, he too headed to London to soothe nerves and assure the markets that he was only kidding.

The inability to get to grips with this financial crisis here in Europe and in the United States and Japan will ensure that it lasts even longer than necessary. There is little sign of the crisis abating here in Europe and every sign that it will get much worse in the United States at the end of the year if the deadlocked Congress is unable to reach agreement.

This is worrying for those who like moderate governments. A lengthy financial crisis will begin to pose real problems for Europe's political leaders. This week, we have already seen one far right leader poll exceptionally well and the collapse of another government after a far right leader was unable to stomach cuts. As one mainstream political party after another is discredited, voters could turn in even larger numbers to populist parties as they did in the 1930s following Europe's last lengthy financial crisis.

Luxembourg's long-serving prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker said a few years ago about his fellow leaders that "we all know what to do, but we don't know how to get re-elected once we have done it". It is debatable whether Mr Juncker and the other heads of state really do know what needs to be done but it is a maxim that Mr Sarkozy and Mr Rutte are probably pondering at the moment. If the weekend opinion polls are accurate, it may well come to haunt others, including Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, in the years to come.

Irish Independent