Austerity meets voter backlash in Greece, France

Supporters of the Socialist Party candidate for president celebrate the victory of Francois Hollande, at Place de la Bastille in Paris on May 6, 2012. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

(CBS/AP) The results of national elections in France and Greece on Sunday were seen as a rejection of government spending cuts and other austerity measures intended to carve down debt as an instrument against recession.

In Greece, where unemployment is rampant, the election was voters' moment to vent their fury over two years of austerity that Athens has been pushing through to qualify for Eurozone bailout loans. Incomes, benefits and pensions have been slashed repeatedly and taxes hiked.

Parties backing the international rescue package lost their majority in Parliament. "Citizens sent a very clear message that they don't want this (austerity) policy to continue," PASOK spokeswoman Fofi Gennimata said. "It was a very great defeat for us."

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The results increased the chances of a possible Greek exit from the common euro currency.

That uncertainty weighed on markets across Europe and in the U.S. on Monday, with the Athens exchange tumbling 7.3 percent in midday trading.

The results were even more pointed in France, where the incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy lost his job to Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.

Sarkozy had allied himself with Germany's Angela Merkel in pushing austerity measures. Some of his proposals, such as raising the retirement age, had been met with stiff resistance.

In the run-up to Sunday's election Sarkozy promised to slash the government's payroll further, increase the sales tax, and restrict legal immigration.

Hollande (the first Socialist to hold the presidency since Francois Mitterrand left office in 1995) got elected by promising a new French revolution - that instead of the austerity and budget cutbacks that France (and Europe) are now enduring, the way out of the financial mess lies in more government spending and more government jobs, said CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.

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Following his victory, Hollande told cheering supporters, "In all the capitals, beyond all the heads of government and state, there are people who, thanks to us, have hope and who are watching us and want the end of austerity. That is my message. You are much more than a people who want change - you are already a movement that is rising up to carry our values and aspirations across Europe and perhaps even the world."

Appearing on "CBS This Morning," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said, "Hollande basically is saying, 'We are not going to embrace austerity economics' - that is, cutting budget deficits, cutting safety nets as a means of restoring so-called confidence in the business sector. 'We are not going to sacrifice our economy for the sake of the bond traders.' ... But as a practical matter, they've got to do some of that."

Turnout in France was high, at about 80 percent. Conversely, in Greece - where voting is officially compulsory - Sunday's turnout was low for that country, at 65 percent.

Greece

Bailout-reliant Greece faces weeks of financial turmoil after voters angry at crippling income cuts punished mainstream politicians and let a far-right extremist group into Parliament, yet gave no party enough votes to govern alone.

Official results showed conservative New Democracy came first with 18.85 percent and 108 of Parliament's 300 seats. Party leader Antonis Samaras (who backs Greece's bailout commitments for austerity but has called for some changes to the bailout plan) will launch coalition-forming talks later in the day. Samaras has three days in which to build an alliance, after receiving the formal mandate from President Karolos Papoulias Monday.

"I understand the rage of the people, but our party will not leave Greece ungoverned," Samaras said after Sunday's vote.

Members of the Neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn celebrate at their offices in Thessaloniki, Greece, on May 6, 2012. Greece's two main parties suffered big losses in elections after a strong showing by protest groups, including the nationalist Golden Dawn, which is set to enter Parliament for the first time since the end of the military junta in 1974.
SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/GettyImages

But striking a coalition deal could prove impossible because even with the support of the only other clearly pro-bailout party elected, Socialist PASOK, New Democracy would fall two seats short of a governing majority.

Sunday's big winner was the anti-bailout Radical Left Coalition (or Syriza), whose unprecedented second place finish, with 16.78 percent, gives it 52 seats.

Disaffected voters deserted PASOK and New Democracy, the two mainstays of Greek politics. Instead, strong gains were registered by smaller parties, including the extremist Golden Dawn.

That party has been blamed for violent attacks on immigrants and ran on an anti-immigrant platform, vowing to "clean up" Greece and calling for land mines to be planted along the borders. It got 6.97 percent of the vote -- a stunning improvement from 0.29 percent in 2009 -- and won 21 seats.

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