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French election matters to us all

The French presidential election, of which the first round was held yesterday, could change the balance of power in Europe and point to new paths out of the economic jungle. It therefore ranks as high in significance to Ireland as an American presidential contest or a British general election -- perhaps higher.

Under the French system, voters go to the polls twice. In yesterday's first round, 10 candidates stood, of every colour from far right to far left. In the second round on May 6, only the two contenders with the highest first-round votes will remain in the race. There has never been any doubt that these would be President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande.

Mr Hollande was the favourite throughout most of the campaign, and yesterday's results confirmed that. On last night's showing, it seems only unexpected and eccentric switches by supporters of eliminated contenders could prevent him from becoming president.

Why should the French, who value style so much, choose a seemingly dull candidate over a flamboyant one? The immortal Clinton slogan gives a clue: "It's the economy, stupid." In the present case, however, it is not just "the economy" in the usual sense.

Of course there is discontent in France as elsewhere with austerity measures and high unemployment. But there is greater discontent on the broader question of Europe's reaction to the crisis, and it has had deeper effects on the election campaign than the populist proposals put forward by Mr Hollande, such as taxing millionaires at 75pc.

Central to this question is the relationship with Germany. The Franco-German axis is key to the European project. In the French perception, it has changed, for the worse, under the "Merkozy" partnership of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Sarkozy. The president is widely viewed as the chancellor's puppet. Could another sea change be in prospect now?

Mr Hollande says that if elected he will not ratify the European fiscal pact unless it is expanded to encourage economic growth. He has also revived an old argument about the role and mandate of the German-dominated ECB. These views must be taken seriously.

Across the EU, the belief has gained ground that austerity measures alone will not work.

Last Wednesday Italy's "technocratic" prime minister, Mario Monti, said that "everything we are doing now is aimed towards helping growth". And Mr Monti is a supreme insider.

Mr Hollande for his part says that Germany "understands that it cannot remain an island of prosperity in the middle of an ocean of recession". We should see soon enough whether his personal relations with Chancellor Merkel bear out that claim. For the sake of both countries -- and of Europe -- they had better be good.

Irish Independent