If the latest polls—and the accompanying press coverage—are to be believed, Nicolas Sarkozy’s time as president of France will soon come to an end. In the all-important run-off election scheduled for May 6, most believe the incumbent will lose to his Socialist challenger, François Hollande. This is a prospect that no doubt worries Sarkozy and his supporters in France. But it should also worry people elsewhere in Europe, as well as here in the United States.
To be sure, Sarkozy’s unmaking has been a long time in coming. Early in his term, he allowed himself to be portrayed as a friend of France’s rich and powerful. He has also been repeatedly accused of tarnishing the dignity of his office on account of a messy divorce and the subsequent wedding to songwriter Carla Bruni. On a personal level, the French are simply not enamored with the man they have dubbed “President Bling-Bling.”
But those superficial problems have obscured Sarkozy’s many substantive successes. Sarkozy deserves particular praise for his EU diplomacy, where he has managed to steer (and sometimes cajole) German Chancellor Angela Merkel toward more holistic crisis management. Assuming that leadership role has allowed France to lobby for much-needed sweeteners to Germany’s austerity recipes; it’s the positive incentives introduced at Paris’ initiative that have been the key to convincing peripheral democracies to keep up the pace of structural reform.
In more general foreign policy terms, Sarkozy has been groundbreaking. As is traditional with French presidents, he continued to act as if France is the indispensable nation on the global stage. But, contrary to recent history, he has also delivered: Breaking with his own party’s outdated stance, Sarko brought France back to the NATO fold, he stopped opposing American policy in the Middle East, and, most crucially, he provided much of the fighting muscle—as well as the heart—to deliver the Libyan revolution from massacre in Benghazi and ultimately to victory. Even some of Sarko’s fiercest critics have had to concede his key role in the effort.
The twin dangers of a Sarkozy defeat, then, are withdrawal from effective transatlantic cooperation and the loss of a key partner for Germany in the solving of the Eurozone crisis. And while Franco-German politics may not matter much in Washington most years, 2012 is different. The Eurozone crisis remains the biggest threat to the performance of the still-stuttering American economy as well as the “animal spirits” of investors from Asia to Latin America.
To be fair, Hollande is no madman. He seems like a more reasonable Socialist than his former romantic partner and Sarkozy’s failed 2007 challenger, Ségolène Royal. But he is ultimately hostage to an unreformed Socialist Party: With France’s powerful and obstinate unions overrepresented in the party ranks, the Socialists have been consistently against necessary economic reform. Predictably, Hollande says he is eager to bring back the 35-hour week and roll back pension changes at a time when the whole region—and arguably the whole world—is swimming in the opposite direction. His proposal for a 75 percent marginal tax rate would be laughable, if it hadn’t been offered in earnest.
What is more, the rise of a charismatic, hard-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, threatens to push Hollande further to the left ahead of the second round. If Hollande wins the election after succumbing to the temptations of such populism, international investors are most likely to start asking uncomfortable questions about France’s sputtering growth, large debts, and twin deficits.
When it comes to Europe, Hollande had initially promised to rescind and now vows to significantly renegotiate the Fiscal Compact, which was the product of protracted negotiations among EU governments and a crucial stepping stone in Merkel’s vision for transforming the continent into a fiscal union. This is sure to cause a rift between Paris and Berlin, to the detriment of France’s influence over the direction of the EU—and, by extension, to the detriment of all of Europe. If Germany acquires sole possession of Europe’s driver seat, tensions will dramatically increase between core and periphery, benefitting essentially no one.
In other international affairs, there’s little to look forward to from a President Hollande. He has hinted at a decreased role in NATO and a more critical stance toward America. In other words, Washington can expect an unwelcome return to the Jacques Chirac years. (It should come as no surprise that Chirac is said to be casting his vote for the Socialist.)
Despite all these ill portents, Hollande has been reaping major endorsements, both international and domestic, in the last several days. But there is a silver lining: An upset by Sarkozy is still possible, as the incumbent’s most talented strategist, Patrick Buisson, has tirelessly argued. Televised debates in the final weeks could turn the tide. And there may even be a sort of Bradley effect at work in the current polling numbers: Because of Sarkozy’s low popularity, some have supposed that the French will be unlikely to reveal their support for him until they have the assurance of the ballot box’s utter anonymity.
We should not forget that before he became “President Bling-Bling,” Sarko was known to his close lieutenants as “the magician,” due to a knack for making unbelievable comebacks. Ahead of May 6, the French should remember he is more the latter than the former. After all, for Europe, America, and the world at large, five more years of Carla Bruni at the Élysée are still the best possible outcome.
Pierpaolo Barbieri is Ernest May Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. His upcoming book, Hitler’s Shadow Empire: The Nazis and the Spanish Civil War, will be published by Harvard University Press this winter.