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Europe and the Battle for France

How will the outcome of France’s presidential election resonate in Europe — and beyond?

April 25, 2007

How will the outcome of France's presidential election resonate in Europe — and beyond?

The question facing France now is whether Segolene Royal, the first woman with a serious chance of becoming France's president, can win enough votes from candidates eliminated in the first round of voting on April 22 to build an anti-Sarkozy coalition — and win the 50.1% of the votes now required for victory.

One key component of her anti-Sarkozy strategy will be to make the next vote a referendum on President George Bush and Sarkozy's pro-U.S. stance.

"I will not go down on my knees before President George Bush," Madame Royal declared last week in the closing stages of her campaign. Her followers have dubbed Nicolas Sarkozy, who is of Hungarian-Jewish ancestry and something of an outsider in French politics, "a neo-conservative who happens to carry a French passport."

She hopes to rally all those who voted for France's slew of far-left parties — and many of those who voted for the centrist Bayrou — behind her campaign to preserve France's generous welfare and social system and against what she calls "the cruelties and profiteering of the hyper-liberalism of the Anglo-Saxons."

Sarkozy, by contrast, openly admires the low unemployment, low taxes and faster growth of Tony Blair's Britain and the U.S. economy. He made London one of his first campaign stops in an effort to appeal to the estimated 200,000 young French people who work and prosper in the City of London and convince them it was time to come home and help him build a similar economy of free enterprise and lower taxes.

But there is something distinctly Napoleonic about Sarkozy, as is evidenced by the raw passion of his ambition and the authoritarian instincts that led him to use the term "racaille" (“scum”) for young immigrant delinquents and to assert that he would blast them away with a power hose. It evidently worries many voters, and could trigger a "stop-Sarko" movement.

Just before the election, he staged a photo-op that displayed him riding a white horse, an image that every French schoolchild will recognize from David's famous portrait of the young Napoleon crossing the Alps on a proud and prancing white steed. The symbolism deepens when one considers the phrase "the man on the white horse" has long been a French synonym for a coup d'etat.

Sarkozy's key economic promise, which could have a dramatic effect on France's sluggish economy, is to tempt people to work as much as they choose beyond the current limit of 35 hours a week, by dropping all taxes and social insurance charges on the extra hours they work.

This is one of the three main reasons why the outcome of France's election is being watched so closely by France's partners in the 27-nation European Union. Any recovery of France's low-performing and high unemployment economy will help boost the EU as a whole, and reinforce Britain's solid growth and the recovery now under way in Germany.

If all these Big Three economies — who between them command over half of the EU's total economic output — start growing in unison, then the prospects are bright not only for the EU as a whole — but also for the EU's long-stalled “Lisbon Agenda” of reform.

The Lisbon Agenda was agreed back in 2000, with the goal of making the EU into the world's most dynamic and high-technology "knowledge economy" by the year 2010 though a mix of productivity and labor market reforms.

Labor union opposition, low growth and left-wing public opposition to any reform of Europe's generous welfare systems have blocked progress. A Sarkozy presidency could help restore Europe's long-blocked dynamism.

With her dependence on labor union support, the Socialist candidate Royal would find this far harder to achieve, despite some pre-campaign rhetoric when she voiced (but quickly dropped) cautious admiration for Blair and the British economic recovery of the past 20 years.

The second reason for the EU-wide fascination with France's political drama is that the outcome is likely to determine whether the EU can move ahead with the Anglo-German push for a full free trade agreement with the United States.

This would drop all non-tariff barriers to trade and investment though common rules and standards on accounting and the financial sector, on competition and mergers and health and safety standards.

At its most ambitious — and as seen by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and by Blair’s almost inevitable successor Gordon Brown — this project is about building a single transatlantic economy whose 800 million people would produce half the world's economic output and meet the challenge of growth in China and India.

Segolene Royal, who reflects the broadly anti-American stance of the European left, would give this ambitious plan no support.

The third reason for the EU's passionate interest in France's election is that it could finally allow progress on the plans for EU reform, after French and Dutch voters each in a separate referendum rejected the draft of a proposed new EU constitution two years ago.

Sarkozy has proposed a far more modest new EU treaty, which could be passed in the National Assembly without need for a referendum.

Sarkozy, who like the British seeks a Europe of nation-states rather than a federal super-state, would give the EU a single foreign minister and scrap the six-month rotation of the EU presidency.

Sarkozy’s plan, which would provide British support, would give some administrative stability and tidy up the internal rules on majority voting to allow a system that was devised 50 years ago for a Europe of six member states to work more smoothly now that the EU has enlarged to 27.

The problem now is Sarkozy himself. His abrasive personality and naked ambition, his unusual admiration for the United States and the Anglo-Saxon economic systems and his reputation as a maverick, all combine to make it difficult for him to win the centrist votes that he will need to win the run-off election next month.

With 30% of Sunday's vote, Sarkozy can probably scoop up most of the 11% of the vote that went to LePen. That still leaves him needing another ten percent of the vote to win.

The seven million centrist voters who supported Francois Bayrou's passionate Euro-federalism and his suspicion of Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism now hold the fate of France and of Europe in their hands.

And if they fail to stop Sarkozy's momentum in the final round of voting on May 6, they will have another opportunity the following month when France elects its National Assembly, the body that passes the laws and controls the national budget. Sarkozy, who has cast himself as the new little Napoleon, may yet met his Waterloo — even if he makes it to Elysée.