At the end of a week of bad news across Europe, the French have handed the Continent another cliffhanger: In the first round of polling for the presidency on Sunday, incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy trailed his Socialist Party challenger, François Hollande. This means a runoff, as the French system works, and it is scheduled for May 6. Hollande is currently the favored competitor.
A Socialist inhabiting Élysée Palace? We have not had a Socialist president in France since the days of François Mitterrand in the 1980s, and there was neither a fiscal emergency nor a euro to manage at the time. What could be worse in this fraught moment of the Eurozone crisis, when austerity and structural reform are more or less the accepted gospel across the Continent and when the Paris–Berlin alliance has proven crucial to holding the European Union and its currency together?
Plenty is the short answer. For one thing, markets and investors are likely to over-react drastically in coming days because Hollande, who is center-left and very European in his thinking, has a cartoonishly anti-business image. Market turmoil will be unnecessary and unfortunate. For another, fears that a socialist-led France will pull apart the work of the last six months are more worrisome than a Hollande presidency. It is worth asking at this point: how strong is europe if it cannot manage a social democrat as head of one of its core countries?
True, certain things—big things—might change if Hollande makes it through the May 6 round on top. He wants to renegotiate the E.U.’s December fiscal pact, one of Sarkozy’s more considerable accomplishments, to tilt it more toward growth and somewhat away from pure austerity. At this point, this is beginning to look like simple common sense. There are more voices every day saying that the austerity-alone strategy is simply not working.
Hollande also wants to develop a new mandate for the European Central Bank, loosening its traditional fiscal discipline in favor of a more inflationary lending policy. In a word, he is pro-stimulus. All of this puts him at odds with the conservative Sarkozy, whom the French have nicknamed “l’Americain” for his dedication to straight-up-and-down neoliberal economics. But it is hardly likely that Hollande will get his way in all of this—or any of it. He will be a voice, an influence. And let’s face it: Hollande’s policies put him in line with many millions of European voters. A moment such as this one was fated to arrive.