Commentary: Europe's Perilous Leadership Vacuum

Watergate. That's the loaded analogy many French use these days for their own metastasizing political scandal. President Jacques Chirac is accused of illegally accepting huge donations from public works contractors during his control of Paris city hall from 1977 to 1995. The allegations--which Chirac denies---are contained in a videotaped confession made by the Gaullist party's main bagman, Jean-Claude Mery, who died last year. The scandal could bring down prominent politicians from France's main parties.

It's a huge blow to the prestige of the French presidency. Yet curiously, ordinary French are reacting with a kind of weary cynicism. In that regard, they have begun to resemble Italian voters, resigned to incompetence and continuing corruption in high places. If such rot spreads throughout Europe, it will deeply affect how the French and other Europeans regard their leaders---and the political process itself. And that is cause for alarm.

Evidence of a damaging hostility to politics is showing up everywhere. Take France's referendum on Sept. 24. For sheer couldn't-care-less apathy, the abstention rate was breathtaking: 69% of the electorate stayed away--a record for the French Republic. True, voters were asked their opinion on reducing presidential mandates from seven years to five, which is something short of a life-or-death issue. Yet it was telling, nonetheless, to see archrivals such as Chirac and center-left Prime Minister Lionel Jospin join together in impassioned last-minute pleas to get out the vote.

Voila le probleme. Considering the rock-bottom esteem in which leaders such as Chirac and Jospin are held these days, it's a wonder anybody bothered entering a polling booth. France's political culture is in steep decline--and other European countries aren't far behind. This is worth considering since the Sept. 22 move by the central banks of Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Canada to prop up the euro. The $3 billion to $4 billion exercise may have provided some needed relief, but no amount of intervention is going to fix the single currency. What ails the euro and Europe is neither monetary nor economic. It's political.

The Chirac scandal is especially corrosive. The glad-handing Gaullist looked set to clinch a second term in 2002. Now, all bets are off. As for Socialist Party leader Jospin, his once lofty approval ratings have plummeted because of his poor handling of recent fuel-price protests. "What's happening is a condemnation of a whole generation of largely corrupt and often incompetent politicians," says Pierre Lellouche, a neo-Gaullist member of the French parliament who is in revolt against Chirac. "And it's like a nuclear bomb."

Europe is more politically adrift than at any time in recent memory. There's a leadership deficit almost everywhere--just when genuine leadership is needed. The weakness extends across the Channel. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who once set the tone for Europe's new-look leaders, is stumbling as badly as anyone else.

EU RISKS. In Italy itself, where voters have long been among the most cynical on the Continent, politics seems beyond real reform despite the traumatic anticorruption movements of the mid-1990s. Italians now look set to reelect Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial media tycoon-turned-politician, despite potentially serious conflict-of-interest problems.

Now, France is following in Italy's path. And the French scandals could not have come at a more sensitive time. The French hold the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, and it was supposed to culminate in a conference this December in which European leaders would agree on streamlining decision-making. That's essential if countries in Eastern and Central Europe are to accede to the Union. Now, French officials warn that the summit could be a failure.

Yet a solution to this crisis of leadership won't arrive quickly. It takes time to break in a generation of leaders who understand new realities. As European history shows so painfully, tragedies arise when governments and citizens fail to connect, when voters feel alienated from the democratic process--or when the process simply doesn't work. That's why the growing disaffection with politics and politicians in Europe is a danger signal no one should ignore.

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