SHOULD Enda Kenny back Francois Hollande, the socialist French presidential candidate?
This morning, he could do a lot worse than hop on the government jet and join Mr Hollande at a mass rally he is holding in Villepinte, outside Paris. The hot favourite for the presidency enters the final week of the first round of his campaign with the wind at his back.
Enda's appearance on a platform with Francois would hardly go down a bomb with Nicolas Sarkozy. The incumbent French president is struggling to compete with Mr Hollande by holding his own rival rally down the road in the Place de la Concorde.
There is a lot at stake for Ireland -- and Europe -- in the French contest.
Francois has the capacity to cause Ireland a great deal of embarrassment. Or to be our salvation. His promise to renegotiate the Fiscal Treaty could leave us with egg all over our faces if we go ahead with a referendum on May 31. The deciding round of the French presidential battle takes place three-and-a-half weeks earlier on May 6.
If Francois is elected on the final ballot, as is likely, he could torpedo the treaty in his first weeks in office. We in Ireland may then be asked to vote on a deal that has already been rendered redundant.
Of course, Enda rattled the same sort of sabres when he was in Francois's position last year. The Taoiseach swore blind that he would renegotiate another deal -- the EU/ IMF straitjacket -- if elected. When he gained power, he performed a rapid U-turn and abandoned his promise.
Today, he could give Francois a word of friendly advice, explaining that such hostages to fortune work wonders in delivering victory, but are an albatross around a politician's neck once in office. The winners are forced to shoot the hostages.
Francois's reasons for treaty changes are not alien to Enda. His promise to renegotiate was far from electoral madness. His words were measured, stressing the need for Europe to put more emphasis on growth -- and less on austerity. He wants meaningful growth measures enshrined in the treaty.
A growth agenda, led by France, would be music to Enda's ears. Irish people desperately need a growth reality check. Last week, the Department of Finance was still sticking to its bonkers 1.3 per cent growth forecast. The figure is due for revision at the end of April, when we can expect it to head south towards zero. If Mr Hollande can extract concessions that boost growth, Ireland will have found a new ally.
Mr Hollande is also seeking European "project bonds", a product that sounds encouragingly similar to Ireland's favoured instrument for stability -- eurobonds, guaranteed by all the eurozone nations. We could unite with Francois against the European Central Bank's stubbornness on this proposal.
Our two nations have other common interests. Mr Hollande's socialists are equally lukewarm on the condition in the Fiscal Treaty that forbids access to the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue funds to any nation that doesn't approve the treaty. Opponents of the treaty in Ireland suggest that this insertion is Franco-German blackmail. Pro-treaty forces use it as a compelling reason for a 'Yes' vote, threatening that if we do not sign up, we will be cut off from the last lifeline.
During the campaign, pro-treaty zealots are sure to peddle familiar scare stories of no pay for gardai, teachers and nurses if we have no access to ESM funds.
In the vote on the ESM in the French parliament, Mr Hollande's socialists surprisingly abstained. Unlike Enda and Eamon Gilmore, Francois regarded the clause as blackmail. If we vote for the treaty, are we reluctantly succumbing to this blackmail? We may have little choice in reality, but Francois could now be our passport to relief. If he succeeds -- as the new French president -- in freeing signatories from this austerity trap, it would then be easier for Enda to sell the treaty to the Irish people.
We have little to lose by hitching our wagon to the French socialist's caravan. Ireland has received nothing but grief from Mr Sarkozy's France. He tried to bully us into surrendering our 12.5 per cent corporate tax rate. He kept us waiting for months for an interest rate reduction, and has shown no sympathy on our debt burden or on the Anglo promissory notes issue.
He is an austerity junkie for everyone -- except France.
In the present crisis, Mr Sarkozy's France has been an accident waiting to happen.
Last week, the spotlight returned to Spain, next to Italy. On Wednesday, Spanish 10-year bond yields crashed through the six per cent barrier for the first time for four months. Spain's stock market fell by three per cent. Worse news still emerged from Italy, where equities plunged by five per cent and bond yields began to creep up.
Dealers were anticipating a possible rescue operation to help Spanish banks, combined with fears that a new austerity package would kill off growth. The third and fourth biggest economies in Europe were coming under renewed pressure. The ESM will not be big enough to save either economy. Only Germany and France are bigger.
On Thursday, Italian short-term bond yields began to rise again. The honeymoon in the Italian bond market that began when Mario Monti succeeded Silvio Berlusconi in November seemed to be over. Italy's borrowing costs doubled. Market confidence was ebbing.
It is little short of a miracle that French bonds have so far escaped the same market attacks as the other south Mediterranean countries.
The competing electoral appetisers being offered by Mr Hollande and Mr Sarkozy would spook the bond markets of other more solid European nations. French luck will not last.
Standard and Poor's rating agency has already stripped France of its triple 'A' credit rating. Public debt has ballooned under Mr Sarkozy, with public spending the worst of all eurozone countries.
Unemployment has rocketed to levels not seen since the late 1990s. Its banks are undercapitalised. It has the eurozone's largest current deficit in nominal terms.
Such grim statistics have not stopped the two candidates from making promises that the French economy will never bear and that would send bond dealers into a state of panic -- if they believed them.
Some of the duo's pledges are so obviously made in the heat of electoral insanity that they will be forgiven as fantasy. Mr Sarkozy has even promised that he will raise €500m from French people leaving the country to escape taxes.
The proposal has the beauty of punishing vanishing people who have left France. No votes to be lost there.
Mr Hollande has promised 60,000 teaching jobs and a 75 per cent top rate of income tax. Both candidates are living in economic cloud cuckoo land. According to last week's Economist magazine, the election of either candidate could be greeted by the spectacle of investors fleeing the French bond markets.
Europe without Mr Sarkozy is a tempting prospect for Ireland. A victory for Mr Hollande would make the Fiscal Treaty and Europe itself far less threatening. Mr Sarkozy and Angela Merkel have already supported each other in domestic elections. Enda Kenny should not be afraid of flying the flag for Francois.