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Collision course

March 16, 2012

Francois Hollande, the Socialist candidate for the French presidency, is ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls. But if he wins the elections, he's on a collision course with the German chancellor.

Francois Hollande, Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 French presidential election
Hollande is currently ahead in the pollsImage: Reuters

Chancellor Angela Merkel has given her public backing to incumbent French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his bid for re-election. At a joint news conference in February, Merkel expressed her solidarity for her French counterpart:

"I support Mr. Sarkozy in every way, because we belong to allied parties, no matter what he does," she announced.

Merkel noted that she was supporting Sarkozy not in her role as chancellor, but as leader of Germany's Christian Democrats. However, her explicit endorsement goes far beyond the usual nod of encouragement to a fellow conservative, and it carries a huge political risk: Sarkozy's approval rating is poor. Some polls put him several percentage points behind his main rival, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

"[Merkel] did this in the name of Europe, which is all very well, but of course it's a bit risky, because we know that the opposition candidate is in the lead in the polls at the moment and could become the next French president on May 7," said Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, an expert in Franco-German relations and director of research at the foreign policy think tank, IRIS.

Merkel and Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace
Merkel and Sarkozy gave a joint news conferenceImage: dapd

Socialist politicians in France are already grumbling about Merkel's outspokenness. In Germany, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel went even further:

"It's embarrassing," said Gabriel, who may challenge Merkel in next year's elections in Germany. "If Sarkozy loses the election, then this will also be a defeat for Merkel."

Help or hindrance?

But some argue that Merkel's unprecedented move may even serve to boost the Socialist cause in France.

Hollande dismissed her intervention with a hint of Gallic sarcasm: "If Mrs. Merkel wants to campaign for Mr. Sarkozy, she's perfectly within her rights. It's a tough task she's set herself, because it's not easy to convince the French."

Gordon Repinski is parliamentary correspondent for the German daily, die Tageszeitung:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Merkel and Sarkozy have a much-parodied 'special relationship'Image: Reuters

"The close relationship between Merkel and Sarkozy is seen very critically in France. If Hollande were to take office, there would almost certainly be a counter-reaction to that," Repinski told Deutsche Welle. "[Hollande] would probably try to distance himself from Sarkozy's behavior. And Merkel would be confronted with quite a different situation, where the Franco-German partnership doesn't function as smoothly as it does at the moment."

Differing ideologies

Merkel's personal backing for Sarkozy is not the only reason why victory for the left in France could unhinge Franco-German relations. When Hollande unveiled his party manifesto, he presented an economic vision which would see France clash head-on with the current ideology in the rest of Europe. Germany has been urging other eurozone governments to slash spending and reduce budget deficits as the unquestionable solution to the financial crisis: austerity is the order of the day.

Hollande, meanwhile, has pledged to boost state spending by 20 billion euros by 2017, create 60,000 teaching jobs, and 150,000 subsidized posts for young people. These policies would be financed by higher taxes for the rich, higher taxes for banks, caps on bonuses and a tax on financial transactions. Hollande claims that this is the way to bring France's budget deficit back on target, and to win back the coveted AAA credit rating that was recently downgraded a notch by Standard & Poor's, to the horror of many in France.

His manifesto, replete with banker bashing and Robin Hood taxes, is likely to go down well with the French electorate. In a campaign-defining speech in the gritty Paris suburb of Le Bourget in January, Hollande was frank with his supporters: "My enemy is the world of finance," he said with regard to the speculation and profiteering at the heart of Europe's crisis.

Francois Hollande, French Socialist
Hollande is seen as a master of backroom politicsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Hollande wants to bring down the budget deficit and balance the books. He has different priorities," said analyst Jacques-Pierre Gougeon. "But he shouldn't be viewed as a candidate who simply wants to empty the coffers overnight, or put up spending. He doesn't want that."

Who is Hollande?

Hollande, 57, is seen as a master of backroom politics, with some 30 years experience in the Parti Socialiste (PS). He only became the front-runner candidate when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was forced to step aside last year after a massive scandal erupted following his sexual encounter with a maid in a New York hotel.

Hollande is regarded by many as an affable moderate; some even call him "dull" alongside the more flamboyant Sarkozy, with his glamorous wife, Carla Bruni.

In the last presidential elections in 2007, it was Hollande's former partner, Segolene Royal, who was chosen by the Socialists to run for president. Royal lost, Hollande resigned as party chairman, and the couple split up - though Royal did recently endorse her former partner's bid for the presidency.

Euro coins
The main challenge for the next president: the economyImage: dapd

Hollande has pledged to steer away from the belt-tightening tactics that have become the hallmark of most European governments in the face of the crisis. Instead he wants to renegotiate the stability pact agreed by 25 European countries last December, in order to insert a new commitment to economic growth and employment.

"Hollande has said he won't support the fiscal pact in its current form. So Merkel would be dealing with very different political forces in Europe [if Hollande became president], and that presents a real political risk for her. The fiscal pact as we know it wouldn't exist without Sarkozy," said journalist Gordon Repinski.

But Repinski does not believe that the future of the single currency is threatened the loss of the Merkel and Sarkozy double act at the helm of Europe.

"It's traditional for the German chancellor and the French president to work closely together," he explained. "There are many examples of this throughout the decades: De Gaulle and Adenauer, Mitterand and Kohl, Chirac and Schröder ... even with Hollande, the Franco-German partnership would find its way."

Author: Joanna Impey
Editor: Gabriel Borrud