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As France Goes, So Does Europe?

Final Round of French Presidential Vote Could Swing Progressive

SOURCE: AP Photo

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, shakes hands with Socialist Party Secretary General Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in 2007. Sarkozy and Hollande are running against each other for president of France.

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The conclusion of the first round of the French presidential election leaves two men contending for the top prize in the final election next month, the progressive Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande and conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the outcome probably dependent on who benefits from the surge of votes on the far right in this past Sunday’s first round of voting. Intriguingly, though, the final contest for the presidency on May 6 may well turn on more progressive issues of job creation and economic growth—a trend evident across Europe—rather than conservative calls for continued fiscal austerity.

But first, let’s look briefly at the results of the first round of French voting to discern the emerging trends. Neither of the second-round contestants is particularly pleased with their first-round performances. President Sarkozy recorded a 27.08 percent of the vote, and was only narrowly defeated by Hollande, who captured a 28.6 percent share. Martine Le Pen’s reformed (but still hard-right) National Front party, however, exceeded expectations with and 18.01 percent share, while the far-left candidacy of Jean-Luc Melenchon attracted only 11.03 percent, having polled earlier in the campaign at over 15 percent.

On the surface, then, the right and center-right seem to be carrying the lion’s share of the vote. One might normally expect that Martine Le Pen’s National Front electorate would side with the incumbent center-right President Sarkozy, not least given his increasingly populist turn of late. But Le Pen’s supporters are vehemently anti-European and anti-Euro. For them, Europe is characterized by the constitutionalization of austerity and synonymous with national decline.

Yet under the surface something else is going on among far-right voters. As a recent report by the Center for American Progress and the progressive French think tank Terra Nova illustrates, many of Le Pen’s supporters are lapsed socialists who are upset by the lack of economic opportunity in the south. It will be almost impossible for them to vote for a president who was complicit in the drafting of the now-infamous European Union fiscal pact agreed in December last year, which imposed fiscal constraint on already struggling economies across the continent. And, as Martine Le Pen attempts to transform the National Front into a mainstream conservative party and overtake Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement Party, or UMP according to its French acronym, she has little to no incentive to persuade them otherwise.

The challenge for the Socialist Party leader Hollande over the next two weeks is to forge an alliance with the centrist voters who supported Francois Bayrou, the centrist candidate who gained almost 10 percent during the first round vote, while retaining his attractiveness as a real alternative to disaffected voters on the left and right. The poor performance of the far left alongside in-fighting on the right should give Hollande room to maneuver.

In the run up to this past Sunday’s vote, Hollande’s campaign had adopted a more traditionalist leftist stance, highlighting a millionaires tax and renegotiation of the recent fiscal pact among European Union countries to deal with their rolling sovereign debt crisis. One suspects this was in part driven by a desire to close off the rise of Melenchon on his left flank. French socialists are still traumatized by the events of 2002, when a division of the left torpedoed the candidacy of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of that presidential election.

Over the next two weeks, Hollande will need to rediscover the pragmatism he exhibited during the Socialist primary last October. This approach helped him defeat the ideological "tough left" approach of Martine Aubry, who had argued for an ideological left to counter and increasingly populist right. This approach might also help Hollande deliver a new economic approach in Europe, one that subtly alters his current argument in favor of renegotiating the European fiscal pact, which would prove long and difficult.

Indeed, last weekend, in Rome it appeared as though this pivot had already begun. Speaking at a conference of progressive parliamentary parties co-organized by the Italian Democrats and the Center for American Progress, Elisabeth Guigou, a close advisor to Hollande and former finance minister under a previous Socialist-led government in the 1990s, displayed that more nuanced approach. Speaking of balancing fiscal responsibility with growth, she hinted that Hollande might propose a European jobs-and-growth protocol to complement the fiscal pact. This would be easier to negotiate, and would quickly provide European-level growth targets to complement commitments to fiscal responsibility.

Guigou also signaled the Hollande presidential campaign would focus on so-called European project bonds, or infrastructure finance initiatives backed by the European Investment Bank to help leverage private investment into job-creating pan-European public-private infrastructure projects. Again, this would be an easier short-term objective to achieve, and thus much more likely to make an immediate impact than a stalled attempt to evolve the European Central Bank into a European level lender of last resort able to issue Europeanwide bonds.

Across Europe, this turn toward more pragmatic progressivism will provide welcome news. There is a growing disquiet across the continent with how austerity politics is choking economic recovery amid the collapse of the right-of-center Dutch government earlier this week and the insistence by Spain’s newly elected right-of-center Prime Minister, Manuel Rajoy, that further reductions in public spending were impossible. With the upcoming May 6 final presidential vote in France taking place on the same day that Greece elect a new parliament, Europe could be fast approaching a watershed moment in its politics.

A victory for Francois Hollande not only would make President Sarkozy the latest victim of austerity’s failings but also be a game changer in terms of approaches to widespread economic ills. Progressives and conservatives in Europe could unite around a jobs-and-growth protocol and new public-private infrastructure finance bonds to rekindle Europeanwide economic growth.

Matt Browne is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress working on building trans-Atlantic and international progressive networks.

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