Europe's winter of discontent
Economic catastrophe bred Franco, Mussolini and Hitler.
Thursday's French national strike reflects growing despair on the Continent with the way governments are handling the recession, says Adrian Michaels.
The French are in revolt. On Thursday, teachers, television employees, postal workers, students and masses of other public-sector workers will be united in a hugely-popular strike with car workers, supermarket staff, journalists and thousands of others in the private sector.
One poll said that 75 per cent of the public supported the action, which has the backing of the large union groups and opposition socialists. It will be a big test for President Nicolas Sarkozy but, more importantly, the strike will mark the biggest protest so far in one of the world's largest economies against the grief and distress being caused by the catastrophic global downturn.
A depression triggered in America is being played out in Europe with increasing violence, and other forms of social unrest are spreading. In Iceland, a government has fallen. Workers have marched in Zaragoza, as Spanish unemployment heads towards 20 per cent. There have been riots and bloodshed in Greece, protests in Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria. The police have suppressed public discontent in Russia, and will be challenged again at large gatherings this weekend.
This is turning into Europe's winter of discontent. Protests are widespread and gathering pace. It seems to be about national interests superceding the common cause that has united countries for decades.
Comparisons with the Thirties have tended to focus on the numbers – a lack of growth and waning consumer confidence, an increase in business failures and job losses, collapsing stock markets and currencies and panicky runs on banks.
But the Thirties were so much more than that. Economic hardship spawned demonstrations. It allowed extremists to gather support after a loss of faith in mainstream political movements.
Do the protesters across Europe sense once again that their governments do not know what to do? Or is it melodramatic to worry about such a parallel?
Politicians are being assailed for their lack of competence. Mainstream parties – the Left in France and Germany, for example – are bickering and in crisis. France's mainstream unions have, in some cases, been following the actions of more radical groups such as SUD-Rail, which called a wildcat strike at a Paris rail station and stranded thousands of commuters. In Italy, traditional scapegoats such as immigrants are being expelled by populist politicians.
The Continent has been turned upside down as governments struggle to cope. Whatever was bad – state aid, bigger budget deficits, mass bail-outs – is now good. "Governments are making it up as they go along," says Alan Ahearne, an economist at the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels. "They are doing it on the fly."