Friday, 20 April 2012

20 April 2012

It's beginning to look as if something quite profound is about to happen in European politics.

A socialist is about to be elected as president of one of the two most important members of the European Union. It hasn't happened since 1988, when François Mitterrand was re-elected for a second term as president of France -- and it could quite dramatically change the way European politics operate.

This time it's another François -- François Hollande, written off until recently as just too boring to win. He is, by all accounts, pleasant, competent -- but, most importantly, he's not Nicolas Sarkozy.

Think of him, perhaps, as France's answer to John Major. If Sarkozy is, as the French media like to call him, Monsieur Bling, then Hollande is Monsieur anti-bling. And it seems that's just what substantial numbers of French voters want.

But just as importantly, he has had the great good fortune not to have been in office when the whirlwind of the global financial crisis struck, and EU economies shuddered to a standstill. To have been a European politician in office over the past four years is to have been swept aside by the combined force of voter fury and market melt-down.

Just look at the list: among the fallen leaders are Gordon Brown (defeated in May 2010); Brian Cowen of Ireland (January 2011); José Socrates of Portugal (June 2011); Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark (October 2011); Silvio Berlusconi of Italy (replaced by the technocrat Mario Monti in November 2011); George Papandreou of Greece (replaced by another technocrat Lucas Papademos); and José Luis Zapatero of Spain (defeated in December 2011).

It's quite a roll-call. And, unless there's a major electoral upset in the offing, the name of Nicolas Sarkozy will soon be added to it.

No one, I suspect, will be pondering the implications more anxiously than the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. She and Monsieur Bling were never natural soul-mates, but they did eventually find a way to work together, and between them they managed to steer some sort of path through the euro crisis. Hence the emergence of the Berlin-Paris consensus that came to be known as Merkozy.

Chancellor Merkel and M Hollande will have some tricky re-positioning to do if he does move into the Élysée Palace next month. The French socialist is committed to renegotiating the "fiscal stability pact" which was meant to save the euro from disaster -- and even if he finds some way to row back from his campaign rhetoric, he will need something to wave in triumph for the voters back home.

Sarkozy has been warning darkly about how the financial markets will react if François Hollande does win. It's a perfectly understandable campaign tactic, but there may well be a renewed outbreak of the jitters if there's a changing of the guard in Paris.

Add to the French uncertainty the upcoming elections in Greece, with neither of the major parties there looking as if they'll be in a position to form a stable coalition -- oh yes, and factor in the growing fears about the Spanish debt crisis -- and you have, I'm afraid, pretty much everything you need for another round of "euro melt-down" headlines.

That's why the outcome of the French election matters, even if you don't have any plans to cross the Channel this summer. With the UK economy still teetering precariously between recession and stagnation, the last thing we want is for euroland to plunge back into crisis.

That's not to say that an election victory for M Hollande will be a good thing or a bad thing -- French voters are well able to make up their own minds about that -- but there seems to be a view in some quarters that French politics don't much matter to us. I doubt that it was ever true (how could it be as long as the EU was driven by the Franco-German partnership?), but even if it was, I seriously doubt that it's a claim you'd want to make now.

So do tune in for the last of Ritula's extended reports from France on tonight's (Friday's) programme. (If you miss it, it'll still be available as a podcast or via iPlayer in the usual way.)

No comments: