Nicolas Sarkozy’s declaration last week that he would seek to re-election has brought a welcome end to the phoney war that has gripped France in recent months. Now that all the presidential candidates are officially out in the open, they can engage in a real debate over how to take the country forward.
Mr Sarkozy’s ambition for a second term has hardly been a secret. But his calculated coyness has had a cost. Instead of reassuring a suspicious electorate about his dedication, it has left him trailing his Socialist rival François Hollande so badly in the polls that there is a real risk he could lose.
That prospect has raised concerns about the implications of a Socialist victory not just for France, but for Europe. Mr Hollande has caused a stir in Brussels by suggesting that Mr Sarkozy has not been tough enough with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in talks on restoring confidence in the eurozone. He wants to renegotiate the fiscal pact so painfully agreed by 25 of the European Union’s 27 members. He also wants to “reorient” the European Central Bank and says Germany should be encouraged to abandon its deep hostility to the idea of Eurobonds.
Such pledges, if they were ever actually implemented, could set Paris up for a spectacular clash with Berlin. The reality is, though, that they have been carefully calibrated to win over Mr Sarkozy’s critics, while leaving enough room to avoid serious conflict.
Mr Hollande is by nature a consensus politician. He is also a pragmatist and a more committed European than Mr Sarkozy was on taking office. No French president can afford to jeopardise the relationship with Berlin, the cornerstone of Europe. It is not in Mr Hollande’s nature to be the one to do so, even if he were miffed by Ms Merkel’s promise to appear on the campaign trail for his rival. The reality is that Mr Hollande will seek little more than an amendment to the pact to promote growth. If this does not need new funding, Berlin is unlikely to object. In any case, Germany could be isolated as others have called for growth measures too. Compromises can also be found for his other deliberately vague proposals.
That said, any suggestions that leave markets jittery about Europe are unwelcome. Mr Hollande’s ideas may be valid. But he could have called for a second accord rather than a disruptive renegotiation. In the upcoming battle, both candidates should resist the urge to play politics at Europe’s expense. If they do, it will be at France’s expense too.