Thursday, 3 May 2012

Sarko presents a Latin/Germanic choice to France

Someone tuning in to last night’s presidential debate in France might have thought Nicolas Sarkozy was running for president of Germany. Praising the economic model of France’s eastern neighbour, he continually stressed that Germany is more competitive and an easier place to do business.

Even his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande had to agree with him. “Germany in all fields is better than us,” Hollande conceded, with a tone that seemed to imply, ‘if you love it so much, why don’t you go there.’

Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel loomed large over this debate, although she was never mentioned by name. Sarkozy continually returned to a theme of defending his close partnership with the chancellor and her austerity regime for Europe. He has been accused, both in Germany and France, of being Merkel’s poodle. “We avoided the implosion of the euro,” he spat at Hollande incredulously after he questioned the austerity strategy. “It was hard work, which was founded on the Franco-German partnership. It is irresponsible to want to question it.”

And thus the lines were drawn in precisely the way Sarkozy wanted them. “For me, the example to follow, it is that of Germany rather than that of Greece or Spain,” said the president. He stressed that it was the Socialists who have been in power in Spain during the economic crisis, and today Spain’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Contrast that, he said, with Germany where his fellow conservatives have been in power. Germany has the most successful economy in the EU. Hollande, he warned, would make France like Spain.

But it wasn’t just a Socialist/Conservative divide Sarkozy was evoking. It was a Latin/Germanic divide, a choice which has long preoccupied France. Sitting at a fault line of Europe, the country is at once Latin and Germanic, Northern and Southern. While its language is Latin (with heavy Germanic influence), the French kingdom was founded by a Germanic tribe – the Franks. It borders both the Mediterranean and the North Sea.

At the current moment the countries of Southern Europe are in turmoil and the countries of Northern Europe are faring better and calling the shots. Two Southern European countries (Italy and Greece) are effectively in administration. Sarkozy is taking the bet that if the choice is between Northern Sarkozy and Southern Hollande, the French will prefer to be on the winning team. Hollande, Sarkozy warns, will make France another Southern European casualty of the debt crisis, instead of a Northern leader partnering with Germany to save Europe.

But the problem is that much of the French public, and the European public at large, has grown impatient with the solution being imposed by this Nothern European team. If Sarkozy is presenting this as a choice between ‘Germanic’ austerity and ‘Latin’ stimulus, right now it seems more likely that people will want to throw their lot in with a new plan.

Hollande was keen to stress that he wants to depart from this path. His keyword, ‘change’ was uttered over and over. A new path – not only with austerity and only with free-market values – is needed, he said. And he was keen to drive home the message that, with a conservative-dominated Europe, workers have been shut out of the process of devising a solution to the crisis.

“The choice that is laid for Sunday is this: continue with you, Nicolas Sarkozy, or change,” Hollande said. “I want to gather, not only the Socialists or only the right, but all.” His message: Europe needs a better solution than one devised only by Conservatives, only composed of austerity. Because we tried this approach, and it hasn’t worked.

Game over Angela? 

At this point it looks almost certain that Hollande will win Sunday’s final round and become the next president of France. Europe as a whole is likely to interpret this not just as a defeat for Sarkozy, but a rejection of Merkel and her austerity regime. If Sarkozy cannot convince the French to keep him in office in order to continue the austerity work being driven by the Franco-German alliance, then that alliance has ergo been rejected.

It isn’t just Sarko’s government that will have been defeated because of anger over austerity reforms. In the last few weeks alone the governments of the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia collapsed after they were unable to push through the cuts demanded by Merkel. In Slovakia and Romania, those conservative governments have been replaced by the Left. Holland and the Czech Republic are still an open question. The German chancellor is finding herself increasingly isolated. If Europe truly is rejecting Merkelism, what will come in to replace it? Hollande has pledged to re-open the austerity-imposing ‘stability pact’ if he is elected. There is still a strong possibility that the Irish people will reject the pact in a referendum scheduled for the end of this month.

It would be around this point that David Cameron, who is qually as fervent about austerity as Ms. Merkel, could have stepped in to save it. But considering he refused to sign it – for no apparent reason except to satisfy strange ideological anti-Europe demands from some in his party – he can do nothing but sit by helplessly as the medicine he said was necessary for Europe is dismantled.

If the austerity plan for Europe is called into question, this will only bolster the arguments of his Labour opposition at home that the austerity-only response Cameron has pursued has been declared a failure and a new route of growth must be pursued. That Brussels “veto” may have come back to bite the prime minister even sooner than expected.

When Angela arrives at the European Council next month, she will see some unfamiliar faces staring back at her around the table. Whereas just a few months ago she was sitting at a table almost completely made up of fellow conservatives who were following her lead on austerity, she will now be looking at some anti-austerity newcomers. And those Merkel allies that are left will be terrified after seeing what has happened to their cohorts.

It seems all but official: Merkelism is dead. But where do we go next?

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