The first round in the French elections has already changed the political weather across the eurozone. Depending on the outcome on May 6, it could change the fiscal climate too
Even if, against all the odds and the consistent polling evidence, Nicolas Sarkozy manages to remain president on May 6, French voters have already changed the political geography – not just of their own country, but of Europe.
His challenger François Hollande may not quite measure up as the ‘European Roosevelt’ – which is what the Greek daily Ta Nea calls him – but his success already robs the arid austerity talk that has rung in the halls of Brussels and Berlin of the political conviction and sense of inevitability it used to have.Already the weather has changed. In Rome, Lisbon and Madrid (and of course Athens, where there are critical parliamentary elections on May 6, the same day as the French second round), prospects have profoundly altered. Here is the victor of Sunday’s contest, the likely leader of Europe’s third largest economy declaring there is an alternative, that the European Central Bank should be lending them money, that growth needs to be reinserted into any Eurozone fiscal pact.
Of course the ratings agencies and the financial markets will react and Hollande could easily face a lending crisis, forcing him to ‘do a Mitterand’ and suddenly convert to fiscal orthodoxy. But even so, the political success accorded an apostate this weekend has and will go on altering the way people think about states, markets and financial power. (The big vote for the Front National is significant in that context, along with the collapse of the Dutch government under pressure from the rightwing populist parties – and just when the Bundesbank has published a report saying the German economy needs a minimum of 200,000 immigrants a year to prosper.)
It’s too early to be definitive. Hollande ought to win. Even if the Front National vote went two thirds to Sarkozy, the maximum any poll has suggested, Hollande looks likely to pick up not just all the green and far left votes but a good chunk of the centrist vote captured by François Bayrou. Even allowing for a higher rate of abstention than on Sunday, when 80 per cent turned out, it’s his to lose.
But even if he wins the presidency, France has then to elect a government. It’s likely but not certain the centre-left would win the subsequent parliamentary elections and, allowing for cabinet making and French holidays, we’re unlikely to see substantive policy being enacted until the autumn. By then the markets – and the Germans – will have had time to digest the unseating of Sarkozy.
By then, too, the political fortunes of the German chancellor Angela Merkel may be easier to discern, after a sequence of polls in the German Länder. They could see the Greens and Social Democrats advance and the Free Democrats, her partners in coalition, lose yet more seats, hastening a change of government in Berlin. How different the Eurozone would look with governments in both Paris and Berlin in which the left were strong.
The scene is being set for – at the very least – some recalibration of the power of the financial markets. Commentators have pointed out that, rhetoric aside, the basic financial plans of Sarkozy and Hollande are not so different, more a matter of timing than the principle of fiscal consolidation. However, Hollande’s emphasis on growth as a precondition of financial adjustment is distinctive and makes his political fate an object of deep interest to Messrs Miliband and Balls, as well as to the rest of Europe.
David Walker is a journalist and commentator and a trustee of the Franco-British Council