The suffering middle classes

Shoppers in Berlin - file pic Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Politicians in Europe and the US are trying to woo middle-class voters

The middle classes in Europe and America are getting attention. Lashings of it. It has not always been the case. In the UK politicians used to rather patronisingly make their pitch to "working people".

Why the attention? The incomes of middle earners - certainly in America and to a lesser extent in Europe - have been static for the past decade.

These days it seems that those seeking election must acknowledge "capitalism in crisis". There is the obvious question of inequality. President Obama in his State of the Union address said that he would not "settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well while a growing number of Americans barely get by".

The bankers and their bonuses have never been so unpopular. Francois Hollande, who is the main challenger to President Sarkozy in France, has said that "my true adversary is the world of finance".

But there is a wider issue: globalisation. Initially it was much praised for increasing global wealth. Certainly it has benefited emerging economies. Elsewhere - and particularly in the West - it has worked for an elite, but much less well for the middle class.

President Obama spoke of how, after World War II, America built "the strongest economy and middle class the world has ever known". That is no longer the case and, in his view, is damaging America.

The writer Francis Fukuyama - who once spied the end of history - has in a recent essay pointed out that globalisation has eroded the middle class which is the bulwark of a liberal democratic society. He argues that democracy is put at risk if the middle class senses the system is not working for them.

President Obama's clarion call is "to bring manufacturing back". There are echoes of this in Francois Hollande's pledge to overturn the dominance of finance in favour of real industry.

President Obama spoke of wanting an "economy built to last". He wants to use the tax system to keep jobs in the United States, to start rewarding those who do not outsource but keep the plants running in America.

Europe, however, is in a bind if it wishes to follow the American path. Germany and France are working to co-ordinate more closely their tax regimes. Indeed Europe's harmonisers want similar taxes across the eurozone. And therein lies the problem.

In the United States President Obama senses that globalisation has not delivered for the middle class and unashamedly wants to to use the tax system to keep jobs in the United States. The question is whether Europe, with 27 million out of work, will offer incentives to keep jobs in Europe? French unemployment figures are already at a 12-year high and mounting.

There are two big elections this year - in France and the United States. President Sarkozy - behind in the polls - has admitted that "for the first time in my life I am facing the end of my career". His major card is his experience. He will present himself as the only leader capable of fighting the eurozone crisis. He will stand as the defender of the European cause. It would be a foolish mistake to write off such a tenacious politician.

But the middle classes are insecure and anxious. In this election year their loyalty will be fought over.

In France the question is less about the European cause. It goes to the deeper issue of whether Europe and its structures are delivering - particularly jobs.