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Europe

Critiquing Capitalism Across Europe

How much capitalism is too much? The debate has taken on a particularly strident tone in Germany, but it also rages on in many other European countries.

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The leader of Germany's Social Democrats called investors 'locusts'

The discussion re-ignited two weeks ago when the leader of Germany's ruling Social Democrat Party, Franz Müntefering (photo), said international investors who buy up companies, slash jobs and disappear with the profits were like a "swarm of locusts" besetting Germany.

Franz Müntefering spircht im Bundestag in Berlin

SPD Chief Muentefering

Some charged that the incumbent politician was just using the issue to gain sympathy from his traditional voter base, ahead of state elections.

Private equity funds in focus

Müntefering was referring foremost to private equity funds, foreign investment groups made up of private share capital. His criticisms caused an uproar from politicians and the media, and started an intense debate about whether profit-oriented companies and globalization are at fault for Germany's own plague: frighteningly high unemployment.

"The uproar is noticeably great in Germany," said Henning Klodt, who heads the Department of Growth and Structural Change at the Kiel Institute for World Economics.

FIAT Proteste in Turin

Workers during a protest in Turin, Italy

But the debate is also taking place in other European countries -- albeit at a lower volume. Doubts about the capitalist system are growing elsewhere as well, said Ronald Janssen, economics expert at the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

"With the threat of outsourcing or job displacement, job seekers are forced to accept low pay and job cuts, in order to increase profits that are already high," he said.

The French way

For the time being, the French seem to be as critical of globalization as the Germans are.

"It is a debate that has been active in France even longer than in Germany," said Henrik Uterwedde, deputy chief of the German-French Institute, a group that studies social problems in France.

Protestkundegebung der globaliosierungskritischen ATTAC Bewegung

attac-led anti-WTO demonstration, in Frankfurt, Germany

Critics say economic liberalism has an eve broader base in France than in Germany, taking into account the strength of its unions, the anti-globalization umbrella group attac and the communist party.

The French have also had exposure to tough subjects like mass job cuts and globalization for a long time. In France, "of the 40 most important companies, 40 percent of the capital is in the hands of foreign shareholders," Uterwedde said. "In Germany, that number lies between 10 and 15 percent."

The economic experts say the French take on the capitalism debate is more critical -- and more open.

"We don't know where it is going, in terms of the economy," he said. "In Germany, we deal with these issues in roundtable talks with unions. In French, these discussions take place on the streets."

The positive side of this is that "the growing pains are public when any changes take place" in France, Uterwedde added. And the French government is more likely to manipulate the economy.

Britain made the leap

In other industrial countries, the capitalism critics are quieter. Klodt, from the Institute of World Economy, noted that rather than fearing capitalism, Scandinavia and the Netherlands pushed reforms through earlier.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

In the case of Britain, the reforms were already pushed through during the1980s under Margaret Thatcher, said Joachim Volz, Western Europe expert a the German Institute for Ecnomic Research (DIW).

"Now, it's the country with the least fluctuation in growth," he said.

Italy is currently having a lively public debate over young people working for low wages and without a social net beneath them, ETUC's Janssen said.

Management on the coals

A big point of contention in many countries is wages for management. In Belgium, the manager of a weaving machine manufacture nearly ran a firm into insolvency by taking such a big slice of the pie. And even in Great Britain, capitalism has caused trouble.

"People are worried about service jobs leaving the country, like banks or call centers -- although they are already making good profits," Janssen said.

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