Page last updated at 15:56 GMT, Saturday, 21 March 2009

Angry Europeans look for direction

As public anger continues to spread throughout Europe over the global financial crisis, Mark Mardell explores a common craving for leadership and understanding.

Thousands of demonstraters taking part in a nationwide strike in France (Photo: FRANCK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)
French unions are demanding more money to protect workers
Red flags fluttered over France in their thousands as more than a million people - three million if you believe the organisers - took to the streets in Thursday's general strike.

A man dressed as a bloated plutocrat complete with top hat and cigar bellowed his demands, the rig-out somehow uncomfortably recalling propaganda of the 1930s.

As he shouted, "Save the poor!" the camera panned down to reveal a placard proclaiming a fat cat's mantra: "Tax breaks, pensions, stock options - what's the problem?"

A little later, in Brussels, the most important politicians in Europe gathered to discuss the economic upheaval that provoked the street protests, the crisis they themselves have labelled "one of the most important challenges ever to face the European Union".

In the end they took a whole host of smallish, detailed decisions but nothing big, nothing dramatic - nothing that you would want to label "leadership".

New ideologies

Earlier this week I was in the Berlin headquarters of Germany's Die Linke, or Left party.

Farmers tractors block the national Athens-Thessaloniki highway (Photo: SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Touchingly the HQ, Karl Liebknecht House, is in a road running parallel to Rosa Luxembourg Strasse - these the names of two early Communists executed in the street violence of 1919.

Inside the Left party office there's a poster on the wall, a cartoon of a cheerful and determined-looking Karl Marx tipping his top hat - that top hat again - and saying "Good day, I am back."

But the voices I hear on the streets are not calling for old ideological certainties.

There was the chap outside Iceland's parliament dressed in a convict-style black and white striped suit waving a banner comparing a certain banker to a pig.

Or the Greek farmers who had cut their country in two by decoratively arranging their tractors across a motorway, full of fury over the failures of their government.

They were asking for more money, yes, but what they really wanted was not cash but a government with a sense of direction, with a plan for their future, for their grandchildren.

In Latvia, I met a young accordion player, a mild young man with a wispy beard joyously playing as protests around him descended into a riot.

Snowballs and sticks were being hurled at the police.

At each protest there is a different language, different details - but the same emotions
He said to me that the politicians in parliament were "independent".

He did not mean that in a good way. He was trying to say they had no connection with people, and no care for their concerns.

In the same country the head of the bosses' federation was scathing about the government.

"They don't know what to do about the banks," she told me,

"They haven't thought things through, there is no vision, they don't talk and they don't listen."

So should they resign, I ask.

She shrugs and tells me the opposition are even worse.

Since then the opposition have become the government.

Leadership search

At each protest there is a different language, different details - but the same emotions.

EU leaders at a European summit (Photo: BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images)
In the past politicians were seen as irrelevant, now they are perceived as crucial
Anger that politicians failed to see the financial crisis coming and failed to prevent it.

All the people I talk to perched on their tractors, waving their banners - done out in fancy dress that makes one point or another - are looking to their governments for solutions.

They expect men and women wiser than themselves to come up with answers, but feel those on offer are not up to the job.

They mourn the fact that there is no leader with a map, a compass and a purpose, who can offer some hope that there is a way out of the swamp.

I drink beer and eat chips with a senior diplomat back in Brussels.

He says the leaders have been pulling all the right levers, and the crisis would be much worse without their prompt action.

But the levers… here he gives a broad-shouldered shrug which suggests to me that he feels the levers may be pulled with the correct vigour, but they are just not attached to anything!

His gloom deepens. "I can't believe," he goes on, "that people are still walking around just doing their jobs, going about their lives."

So here was a very senior diplomat in effect wondering why more people were not taking to the streets in greater numbers.

Maybe it is because they don't know what to demand.

Desire for empathy

In the recent past politicians were seen as irrelevant, now they are perceived as crucial.

These protests aren't promoting a programme. They are more like a prayer, for benign intervention.

As I left the office of the head of the Latvian employers federation she smiles and says "we are looking for someone on a white horse."

It chills me a little. "No more heroes any more" I think to myself.

The shadow of the 30s, bullies in big boots with simplistic solutions, hangs heavily over Europe's economic woes. History surely isn't about to repeat itself?

Yet in nearly all our countries there is a vacancy for someone who understands people's pain even if he or she cannot make it go away, and for someone who appears to have a clear plan that has a chance of working.

As far as I am concerned, those in need of equine support or with a love of uniforms need not apply.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 21 March, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service

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