French elections on Sunday will likely speed up changes to the core European dynamics that have steered the eurozone's path through the economic crisis, particularly if socialist Francois Hollande, who is leading President Nicolas Sarkozy narrowly in the polls, scores a victory.
Mr. Hollande seems certain to set in motion a change to the strict German-led austerity measures that have so far allowed Berlin to dictate steep spending cuts in national budgets, even as the European debt crisis spilled over into a political crisis, with five governments falling and streets filling with protesters.
Mr. Sarkozy has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring the model of spending cuts and balanced budgets into play. Only a few months ago, when European Union members signed a "fiscal compact" setting the new economic approach in stone, the austerity prescription looked ironclad.
But Hollande has campaigned on plans to incorporate elements of growth into the austerity mandate, an idea bolstered by support from Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, who has suggested a "growth compact" for Europe. Across Europe, even some adherents to austerity are beginning to question it as a solution to the economic crisis. So when Hollande promises a “new direction for Europe,” as he did in his only debate with Sarkozy on May 2, the promise may be more than rhetorical, analysts say.
“We are entering a period where all cards are not yet on the table, where various conflicting logics in Europe, economic and social, are testing each other,” says Karim Emile Bitar, senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “We are approaching a fault line: How much austerity can growth proponents accept, and vice versa?”
Hollande is part of a larger movement
A Hollande victory would not take place in vacuum. Anger and frustration with austerity is rising across the continent, as seen in marches in Prague and Madrid, pushback from some of the austerity model's former strongest backers (like the prime minister of Spain), the collapse of the ruling coalition in the Netherlands, dissent among leading German politicians, and the general angst in Italy, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal.
And of course, there is worry in France itself, which had its AAA credit rating reduced in January and where unemployment hovers at nearly 10 percent. (There is also a fear in France that there could be a market backlash to a Hollande victory, which would bring in a socialist government for the first time in 17 years.)
By challenging austerity, Hollande would likely position France as a lever between the debt-ridden southern tier of Europe and the prosperous German-led north, creating some “creative tension” with Germany over basic direction, as Ulrike Guerot of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin puts it. “It’s suddenly becoming an interesting spring in Europe. The stage is shifting.”
A Hollande victory would likely represent a shift in European mentality as well as power. The center-left candidate, whose vision is said to be shaped by Euro-visionary Jacques Delors, advocates for themes of European inclusiveness that challenge the nationalism and xenophobia that has flourished under an economic model that has played out as favoring the strong and is increasingly seen as punishing weaker nations caught in a spiral of joblessness and debt.
While Hollande’s growth efforts are likely to supplement, not replace, the austerity plan – which he has said is important to curb public and banking excess – the very idea of challenging Germany represents a “psychological shift,” says Hubert Vedrine, former French foreign minister between 1997 and 2002.
Merkel's challenge at home
Ms. Merkel is even at risk of being isolated in her own country, since there is no guarantee the German leader could rally the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD) behind an austerity compact – still pending ratification in the German parliament – as she did before. With the dwindling support across Europe, particularly from formerly staunch ally France, Merkel could be forced to give ground on her insistence on strict adherence to spending cuts and balanced budgets without aspects of growth.
“Ms. Merkel won’t allow a rewriting of the [fiscal compact] but will add to the treaty a policy of growth. She has increasingly few allies. All the other heads of state are talking a growth policy,” predicts Mr. Vedrine.
One former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder of the SPD, set out “pro-Europe” proposals yesterday in The New York Times, arguing that, “the direction of European economic and financial policy must change, away from pure austerity toward growth. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain have made substantial progress in stabilizing their finances. But the economic and political situation in these countries shows that austerity alone is not the way to resolve the crisis… there is a danger of half-strangling national economies with a strict policy of austerity.”
Given the rising tide against austerity, the huge unknown in Paris is what position Sarkozy, formerly Merkel's strongest European ally, will take if he wins. Today the gap between Sarkozy and Hollande is within the 3 percent margin of error in some polls, and Sarkozy has promised a “surprise” in the May 6 vote.