France’s pendulum swing to the left jolts a continent’s fault lines

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Tone, tenor, and style separate Nicolas Sarkozy from Francois Hollande as much as clear political ideology divided the two contenders for the French presidency. But sentiments like voter discontent, backlash and anti-austerity describe the mood French voters were in when they elected the Socialist candidate.

Francois Hollande’s victory with 52 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for the incumbent, returns the Socialists to the Elysee Palace (White House) for the first time in seventeen years. Sarkozy becomes the latest leader voted out of office resulting from collateral damage from the economic recession. But the euphoria of Hollande’s victory may soon fade as reality intervenes; first from the yet undecided results of the National Assembly elections in June, and equally from the undertow of recession.

Francois Hollande, with his companion French journalist Valerie Trierweiler, answers a journalist's questions during a visit at the market in Tulle on the eve of the presidential election second round on May 5. /Lionel Cironneau/AP

Sarkozy was the energizer bunny of French politics, a peripatetic and dynamic leader who was blindsided by the global economic recession and confronted by the rumbling crisis for the Euro currency. Despite these constraints, Sarkozy enacted some positive economic reforms as well as reorientation of foreign policy.

The president elect, Hollande known as Mr. Normal is a calm, cautious, and near-passionless, speaker who won in the second round of the elections by cobbling together a coalition of his Socialists, and the hard left including the communists. Hollande emerged from elitist schools and shall strive to be a tireless technocrat. His victory was based less on reciting the socialist dogma than being of the anti-Sarko candidate, the anti-bling-bling, anti-austerity man.

Though moderate and less polarizing by standards of the Socialist party, Hollande nonetheless remains in debt to the hard left which got him elected. Hollande’s victory represents less of a lurch to the left as much as the pendulum swing of politics where the Socialists have not held the presidency since 1995.

Markets rumbled, but the danger comes not from fear of nationalizations but of mismanaging and misjudging a deep seated European economic malaise and making it worse through the tempting elixir of massive government spending.

“Francois Hollande to be tested by Power,” argues the headline of the business daily Les Echos. The journal adds that the new president faces major economic challenges including growth, competitiveness, debt unemployment and a new European growth pact.

So what kind of substantial foreign policy changes can we expect from Monsieur Hollande?

Nicolas Sarkozy’s instinctive pro-Americanism will be replaced with the more traditional French skepticism. Sarkozy’s public political passion for the USA has stood out as atypical for either the conservative Gaullists or the Left. It has engendered resentment among much of the Left and never sat too well with sectors on the right.

On Israel, Sarkozy oversaw a profound shift in French policy towards a more balanced and accommodating view of Israel, a major shift from traditional policy. Don’t expect the Hollande government to be as fair and balanced in its relations with Jerusalem.

In Afghanistan, Sarkozy sent a sizable French military contingent to help with NATO mission. Francois Hollande has stated he will press for an early pullout from Afghanistan.

Equally Sarkozy fully reintegrated the French military back into the Atlantic Alliance.

More importantly, France may go mushy on the issue of Islamic Iran’s nuclear proliferation. Sarkozy’s France, along with Britain and Germany have taken a very tough tact towards Teheran.

Will Hollande’s government stay on the same diplomatic page, or offer more creative “third ways” to deal with the aspiring Atomic Ayatollahs in Islamic Iran? Moreover, shall France’s close cooperation with the USA and Britain in the UN Security Council, now become more equivocal?

Economically the new government in Paris will strive for continued close ties with Berlin. Yet close Franco/German ties between politically like-minded leaders Sarkozy and Merkel could now be strained. Hollande has pledged to renegotiate the Europe’s “fiscal compact” painstakingly worked out between Sarkozy and Merkel to control deficits, debt, and spending.

Additionally to the backdrop of the continuing political chaos in Greece, the unexpected collapse of a conservative and fiscally responsible government in the Netherlands, there are few countries expect for Austria and Finland who adhere to Germany’s austerity budget guidelines. France under Hollande may not be one of them.

Financial tremors will likely again rock the Euro currency later this year. And indeed left-wing electoral rumblings in Germany itself illustrate deep political and financial fault lines even in Europe’s strongest economy. Throughout Europe the mood is for loosening the purse strings. The bets are now down, les jeux sont fait. Only time will reveal the outcome.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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