An extraordinary debut for Mr Normal

On 6th May, France went to the polls in the second round of the Presidential elections, and, as expected, Socialist candidate François Hollande ousted incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, winning just under 52% of the vote. This makes him the first Socialist President in 17 years, and hands Sarkozy the somewhat less-distinguished honour of being the first President to fail to win a second term in office since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1981.

Known as “Mr Normal” for his unassuming manner (and its sharp contrast with the brash, in-your-face style of Nicolas Sarkozy), Hollande’s first fortnight in charge have been anything but. On the very day of his win, parliamentary elections in Greece did not give any party a clear majority, which threw the country into turmoil, particularly given that Syriza, the radical left coalition party who want to reject the austerity package being offered to the country by the EU and the IMF, finished in second place. As a consequence, Greece leaving the Euro began to be discussed as a serious possibility. So there has hardly been time for Mr Hollande to sit back and savour victory. He had been President for a matter of hours when he flew to Berlin to discuss the crisis with Angela Merkel - at which point even the weather decided to play a part in the drama, as the figurative dark clouds gathering over Europe came to life, hitting his plane with a lightning strike and forcing him to turn round and start again.

Unassuming he may be, but thrown in at the deep end of a crisis worsening by the day, François Hollande has not shied away. He has clear ideas about how the Eurozone crisis should be tackled, and he has not been afraid to bring them forward. Throughout his election campaign, he maintained that France and Europe need to focus on finding measures to promote economic growth, rather than on strict austerity programs and cuts. And in calling for growth, his voice has not been a lone one. Other European leaders, seeing that cuts have not brought results, and perhaps seeing the anti-austerity feeling expressed by French and Greek voters also prevailing in their own electorate, have rallied behind Hollande. He also has the support of President Obama - four days after his inauguration, the new French President attended his first G8 summit in Washington, and the Eurozone crisis was naturally high up on the agenda. Following his first meeting with Hollande, the US President called for Europe to follow a “strong growth agenda".

But in calling for growth to be the priority, Hollande comes into conflict with Europe’s biggest economy, that long-time champion of austerity, Germany. The French President wants the fiscal pact, aimed at ensuring tighter spending controls and agreed by all EU Member States, except the UK and the Czech Republic, earlier in the year, to be renegotiated to include provisions for growth. But Angela Merkel has rejected calls for revision of the agreement.

Another of Hollande’s proposals for promoting growth is the creation of so-called eurobonds, which would essentially collectivise Eurozone debt. This would make it easier for troubled economies such as Spain and Italy to borrow money, as investors would know that the debts were underwritten by other nations with stronger economies. Germany, however, is very much opposed to the idea. As the Eurozone’s biggest economy, they do not want to be responsible for debts racked up by their neighbours.

And so the battle lines were drawn when EU leaders met for an informal dinner on the 23rd May. Eurobonds formed a large part of the discussion, with France, Italy, Britain and Spain believed to be amongst those saying yes, and Germany, Austria and Finland believed to be amongst those saying no. It was not a night when decisions were to be made, but if one thing emerged crystal clear from the six hours of discussions, it is that Merkozy is but a distant memory. Hollande did not meet with Merkel for a pre-summit meeting, as his predecessor had been in the habit of doing, and it appears that for now at least, the Franco-German duopoly is at an end.

For some, François Hollande has a lot to prove. He is inexperienced in top-level roles : before becoming President, he had never held a ministerial position. But he has certainly made an extraordinary start. He has changed the focus of the economic debate in Europe - although he is not the first EU leader to express a desire to promote growth, his championing of it, as the man in charge of Europe’s second-largest economy, has brought it to the top of the agenda - and, perhaps more significantly, he has made it clear that he is not afraid to stand up to Berlin. Angela Merkel, from being the driving force in the fight against the Eurozone crisis, now looks increasingly isolated.

Whatever happens in the next few months, whether Greece stays or goes, however the crisis unfolds, it seems certain that François Hollande will make his voice heard, and will fight his and France’s corner. Headline writers had best get their thinking caps on, because Mr Normal might soon be in need of a new nickname.

Photo : The Council of the European Union

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