The U.S. media’s spin on the French presidential election, in which Socialist François Hollande prevailed, is that this was purely a rejection of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “austerity” policies. That matches nicely with U.S. liberals’ argument that President Obama’s great error was in not spending enough.

It is true that Hollande rhetorically stood for less austerity and more spending (purportedly to stimulate growth). But this election was really about competence and effectiveness just as much as bland platitudes about ideology. In fact, Sarkozy didn’t practice much austerity. The Wall Street Journal editors recall:

Mr. Sarkozy ran as the candidate who wanted to restore dynamism to the French economy and to “rehabilitate work, authority, respect, meritocracy” to their proper places in French life.

What French voters mostly got instead was an Élysée soap opera about his love life along with immobility on policy. While he managed to move the retirement age up to 62 from 60 for younger workers, his promises to cut the state bureaucracy and increase the rewards for work largely went nowhere. . . . Mr. Sarkozy and his government responded by raising sales and capital-gains taxes, demonizing successful French businessmen, complaining that Germans work too hard, urging an international financial-transactions tax and trying to pin much of the blame for economic troubles on immigrants.

A more accurate description of events, then, would be that an incumbent who fails to deliver faces peril in a democracy, even against a flawed challenger.

Meanwhile, in Greece, incumbents also got clobbered. The Post reports: “Voters dealt a potentially ruinous blow Sunday to the bailout keeping Greece from bankruptcy, sweeping away its supporters and pushing top political leaders to say they would renegotiate the rescue package or overturn it completely.” This could have potentially ruinous consequences for the fragile bailout deal, raising new concerns about a European economic crisis. (“If the country fails to implement promised measures and its international backers cut off the flow of money, the consequences could be even more painful, for Greece and for Europe as a whole. Heightened fears about the euro zone’s financial future could drive Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs to crippling heights.”)

Throughout Europe the overriding sentiment was discontent and even anger with the incumbents, as this report suggests:

“We’re tired of Sarkozy. He is testy, he is aggressive, and he divides the French people,” said Jean-François Belot, a 39-year-old teacher, watching preparations in Paris’s Place de la Bastille.

Others complained Mr. Sarkozy hasn’t delivered on promises to make France more competitive. “His ‘work more to earn more’ never came true,” said Lionel Vidal, a butcher in the rural town of Tulle. “I feel like I worked, and didn’t earn anything more.”

Financial and political instability in Europe poses yet one more threat to the fizzling U.S. recovery. The Greek public refusal’s to come to grips with its financial catastrophe should hardly encourage the United States to do likewise.

This morning European stocks and U.S. futures are taking a beating. The Post reports:

If [the new governments] veer too far off the track of austerity and are seen to ring up fresh budget deficits, they could be quickly punished through a run on bonds or a dumping of bank stocks that could trigger a new phase in the crisis.

Monday’s early sell-off did not reach those levels, but it offered a reminder of the stakes. The euro fell against the dollar, briefly touching a four-month low at $1.295. The stock market in Athens, where politicians were still scrambling to form a new government in the aftermath of fragmented elections, was falling by more than 7 percent early Monday. Key indexes on the stock markets in Paris and Frankfurt were also dropping by more than 1 percent.

Borrowing costs for France, Greece, Spain and Italy all edged higher early Monday.

The lesson from Paris and Athens is three-fold.

First, economic non-performance by an incumbent government is not acceptable. Excuses wear thin with anxious voters.

Second, a failure to deal with fiscal problems early on results in economic and political crisis down the road, when the cure becomes much more extreme.

And finally, so long as governments impose anti-growth, high tax policies that impede economic vitality, incumbent governments will fail both to meet their debt obligations and satisfy popular demands for jobs and prosperity.

The Obama administration had better hope the European events don’t spark another international financial meltdown and that the new French leader, as the Journal’s editorial board puts it, decides to “follow the example of the last center-left German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who did a Nixon goes to China by selling reform to his coalition.” Come to think of it, had Obama sold reforms (on taxes and entitlements) to his coalition, his political fortunes and the U.S. economy would be in much better shape.