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As Greece awaits bailout, southern Europe seethes

European governments are expected to sign off on a second bailout for Greece today. But conditions set on rescue money have fueled populist unrest in southern Europe.

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Southern Europe's democratic tradition is relatively new. Besides Greece, Spain and Portugal were also run by dictators until the 1970s.

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When the Italian and Greek governments fell last autumn, technocrats were appointed to take over, rather than new leaders being elected. There is no guarantee that the next elections will bring to power those seeking the sunny uplands of democracy, rather than demagogues.

Austerity has brought a dramatic and abrupt shift to Europe's political scene. In Greece, reports suggest a shattering of the political center, new interest in the far right and left, continuing anti-immigrant sentiment, and growing support for more authoritarian politicians.

Romania's former prime minister, Emil Boc, stepped down last month amid mounting street protests against austerity.

In Hungary, run by the Soviets until 1989, strongman President Viktor Orbán has shown a willingness to change his nation's constitution and control the media to stay in power – with the backing of a growing far right.

Nor is populist feeling restricted to the more peripheral countries. In France, the far-right Marine Le Pen has been turning heads ahead of the April 22 presidential election. She looks askance at the euro, would take a protectionist approach to trade, abhors globalization and immigration, and says France is decaying.

"Our country is in the process of underdevelopment, of Third Worldization," she argues. Ms. Le Pen now scores 20 percent in the polls and is scaring the pants off President Nicolas Sarkozy's reelection team. Surveys last month found more than 30 percent of French see her ideas favorably.

"With an austerity policy, my best prediction is zero growth for years," says Jean-Paul Fitoussi of Sciences Po in Paris. "What would change that is a rising populism," he says, which could bring political disarray, which would make things even worse. "Already, 33 percent of French agree with Le Pen about globalization and the euro. It's a definite wild card."

Europe lacks a unifying narrative

It may be too early for the direst predictions. No armies of brown shirts or Bolsheviks are appearing on Europe's streets just yet. Some fear and anger was dampened after the European Central Bank quietly loaned $639 billion to banks in December 2011.

But the underlying direction of Europe is not toward the robust growth and idealistic integration that characterized the Continent in the postwar era.

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