Europe braced for upheaval as France votes
WHEN the French go to the polls today for their first stab at choosing a new president, they may also tilt the balance of power in Europe in the midst of the EU's worst crisis.
The expected triumph for Francois Hollande will do little to resolve Europe's long-running agony of debt and decline. But it is likely to realign the power politics in the EU. "This election will determine the future of Europe," said a senior social democratic MEP in Brussels.
For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had struck up a close, if awkward, alliance with Nicolas Sarkozy, today's election was more important than many of her domestic campaigns, Der Spiegel said last week.
"Whoever wins in France will help drive European policy by her side. If the victor proves to be Hollande, things could become uncomfortable for her, both in Brussels and at home in Berlin," it added.
The Merkel camp has been praying for a Sarkozy comeback. But Berlin is also resigned to a new French Socialist regime and has been putting out feelers to the Hollande camp.
The Franco-German alliance is no longer enough to run an EU of 27 countries, but remains a necessary factor. The unlikely "Merkozy" tandem, generated by crisis, has managed to alienate many other EU leaders.
The alliance has been useful for Ms Merkel, supplying cover for German-scripted policy on the euro, while Mr Sarkozy's second-fiddle status in the relationship has been humiliating for France.
It is here that Mr Hollande is planning to challenge Ms Merkel most fundamentally -- on the policies and strategies that have entrenched German fiscal rigour and austerity as the eurozone's answer to the crisis.
That means seeking to reform the role of the European Central Bank and discussing Ms Merkel's punitive fiscal pact, reluctantly agreed by 25 EU leaders in March and now being ratified. Mr Hollande says that a France under a new political majority in June will not ratify the existing pact. Ms Merkel, by contrast, is racing to get the German Bundestag to endorse the pact by next month.
Despite the policy differences, Mr Hollande stresses that he wants a strong relationship with Ms Merkel. The chances of that look good.
Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande have more in common than the German has with Mr Sarkozy. Both are cautious, centrist-policy wonks, risk-averse and unflamboyant. Funny and mischievous in private, dull in public.
It remains to be seen how much is campaign rhetoric and how much compromise can be reached if Mr Hollande moves into the Elysee Palace. He told Les Echos there was more at stake than France's fortunes.
"Change in France will allow Europe to shift direction. The [second round] May 6 date is also a decisive deadline for the future of our continent."