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Europe looks for The Avengers

The results of the French and Greek elections signal a popular mood that alien forces – markets, immigrants, trade – need to be defeated. But the reality isn't like The Avengers film.

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    François Hollande, winner of Sunday's election for president in France, visits a market with his companion French journalist Valerie Trierweiler.
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He hardly resembles one of the heroes in “The Avengers.” Yet the president-elect of France, François Hollande, is like many leaders today. He’s been called upon to defeat alien forces.

In the eyes of French voters on Sunday, those foreign forces are the demanding financial markets and Germany’s dictate for austerity to solve Europe’s debt crisis.

In Greece, too, after its own upset election Sunday, new leaders are expected to protect the Greeks from an invasion of foreign demands for radical reform of their economy.

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Outside forces are indeed pushing politicians these days to spend more time dealing with external issues. And they are adding up: climate change, trade competition, illegal immigration, terrorism, the Internet’s impact, energy supply woes, and so on.

With so many adverse trends, each country is prone to see the rise of groups trying to fend them off. In the first round of the French presidential election, for example, about 1 in 3 voters cast ballots for candidates who are anti-euro and antiglobalization – from the left and right.

But as Britain’s Europe minister, David Liddington, says, “You can’t be ‘little Europe’ and expect to somehow be immune from global trends.”

In a few countries, leaders try to act like an Avenger and fight off foreign forces – by exploiting them. In Argentina and Bolivia, leaders recently took control of private foreign resource companies in order to soak them. China, long fearful of foreign domination, extracts much in technological know-how from companies that invest in the Chinese market. In Russia, Vladimir Putin took over the Russian oil giant Gazprom rather than rely on foreign oil firms and used the profits to appease restless Russians – and keep himself in power.

Politicians need to be upfront with solutions to their people’s plight and resist the idea that they are victims of a changing world. Mr. Hollande fell into that trap on the campaign trail, telling one audience: “The French will not allow their future to be determined by the pressure of markets or finance.”

Yet he now plans to meet very soon with Germany’s leader, Angela Merkel, and ask for her help. He will appeal to the European Central Bank to loan money to troubled eurozone governments like his.

Blaming outsiders for one’s woes while not making the necessary internal reforms is a neat trick – for a while. Eventually, however, France, Greece, and other European countries that need reform will face the music. They have models. Ireland, Spain, Slovakia, and other European Union countries have taken on austerity while also creating the conditions for new business.

They aren’t looking for an Avenger to slay the outside monster.

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