By Gideon Rachman

The battle for France has a couple of weeks to run. After that, the battle for Europe will begin. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and his challenger in the French presidential election, François Hollande, are promising to save the “French exception” by radically changing the direction of the European Union.

Most of France’s European partners are inclined to dismiss the two candidates’ rhetoric as cynical sloganeering, as they gear up for the final round of voting on May 6. It is assumed that, at the conference table in Brussels, France will be “reasonable”. But that is complacent. In Sunday’s first round of voting, the far right and far left scooped up about one-third of the votes. This election has already revealed a deep French anxiety about globalisation, austerity and national identity to which all the candidates pandered to. That will be reflected in France’s behaviour in Europe.

In 30 years of following French presidential races, I have never seen one played out against such a background of foreboding and anxiety. The French know that their cherished social model – with its excellent infrastructure, healthcare and pensions – has been built upon an unsustainable mountain of debt. For years that was an abstract problem. But now the EU economic crisis is threatening to bring the good times to an end.

France feels surrounded. To the south is the debt-driven austerity and social upheaval of Greece, Spain and Italy. To the north and west are the Anglo-Saxon markets of Wall Street and the City. To the east are the implacable Germans insisting on their new fiscal pact, which promises to make austerity a legal obligation.

Both the surviving candidates are promising to defend the French social model, by going on the offensive in Europe.

The kinds of changes that the two contenders would demand are slightly different. Speaking just after the first round, Mr Sarkozy promised to “protect the French way of life”. Specifically, he pledged to tighten border controls, limit immigration and promote a “buy Europe” policy. In EU terms that could translate into a push for trade protectionism and for a renegotiation of the Schengen treaty on free movement of people. After decades in which Europe has concentrated on ripping down barriers to trade and people, Mr Sarkozy wants to start reconstructing them. Read more…

As published in www.ft.com on April 23, 2012.


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