He is seen as lackluster and relatively unknown in Germany, but François Hollande, the Socialist Party challenger of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, stands a good chance of being elected president on May 6. He is the man German Chancellor Angela Merkel fears, because he could jeopardize her European legacy. Hollande wants to renegotiate the fiscal pact to save the euro adopted in December by 25 European Union member states. This is one of the reasons Merkel openly supports Sarkozy and has refused to meet with his challenger in Berlin so far. Hollande, 57, was the first secretary of the Socialist Party from 1997 to 2008. Without ever having held a cabinet position or served as prime minister, he would be only the second leftist president of the Fifth Republic, after former President François Mitterrand, under whom Hollande began his career in 1981.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Hollande, if you are elected to be France's next president on May 6, where will your first trip abroad take you?
Hollande: To Berlin, to see Chancellor Angela Merkel.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean that if Mrs. Merkel didn't want to see you before the election, she'll have to meet with you afterwards?
Hollande: I don't force anyone. I simply indicated my availability (to Merkel) in case the possibility to meet before the election could have been given to us. That wasn't possible. I understand Mrs. Merkel's reasons, given that she supports the incumbent.
SPIEGEL: Did you receive a formal rejection from her office?
Hollande: No, but I don't think it makes sense to insist. I let it be known that I would be willing to meet, and there was no reaction.
SPIEGEL: A humiliating rejection.
Hollande: Of course, the chancellor can decide for herself which attitude she wants to adopt during the election campaign in a large partner country like France. I also understand that Mrs. Merkel supports Mr. Sarkozy, given that they're in the same conservative family of parties. What counts is that we, as democratically elected leaders, are capable of establishing good relations between our countries in the event of my victory.
SPIEGEL: So you truly have no hard feelings?
Hollande: None. Sarkozy and Merkel have been working together with more or less ease, and it's my impression that they ended up finding an equilibrium in their relationship. However, when it comes to the fiscal pact, for which the two are responsible, there is no doubt that Mrs. Merkel has had greater influence than Mr. Sarkozy.
SPIEGEL: You have antagonized the chancellor by demanding a renegotiation of the European Union fiscal pact, which obligated the member states to impose austerity measures. If you are elected, could your first meeting end up being a little embarrassing?
Hollande: It won't be embarrassing for anyone. For me, it will be an opportunity to tell her exactly what I want: a reorientation of Europe in the direction of more growth. This is a necessity that the fiscal pact doesn't take into account.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you would behave like a defiant winner? Or would you more likely be eating humble pie?
Hollande: Neither. I have great respect for Mrs. Merkel, as well as for the German people, who, as we know, will go to the polls themselves in September 2013. And everyone knows that I, as a Socialist, have good connections to (Germany's center-left) Social Democratic Party.
SPIEGEL: You haven't just upset Mrs. Merkel, but also the heads of other European governments. Aren't you worried about becoming something of a pariah in Europe?
Hollande: Listen, no! I'm just on my way to visit Polish President (Bronislaw) Komorowski, and I've already met with President Georgio Napolitano in Italy. I've had meetings in Brussels with the president of the European Commission and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Should I go on?
SPIEGEL: We're talking about those who don't want to meet with you. Our report that Mrs. Merkel and other leaders don't want to see you has caused a stir in France.
Hollande: I didn't write that article in SPIEGEL - you can bear witness to that. At any rate, it had two effects. First, the French asked themselves why this intention existed. Second, it led to denials. But it isn't foreign leaders who will decide the elections for the French people. Perhaps these people did me a service without knowing it.
SPIEGEL: (Former conservative French Prime Minister) Dominique de Villepin called the chancellor's support for Sarkozy "the kiss of death."
Hollande: I really didn't ask Mrs. Merkel to arrange my eventual election in this way. But now everyone knows my position on the fiscal pact, and on the day after the election they will have to take it into account. If I become president, France will not continue with the same policies as under Nicolas Sarkozy -- both in domestic policy and in foreign and European policy.
SPIEGEL: And so now you're campaigning in France as the candidate who is confronting Germany.
Hollande: I'm also the candidate who knows that the German-French friendship is indispensable for Europe. And I will never let myself be carried away to making statements that would change it.
SPIEGEL: But they've already been made. Your fellow Socialist Party member Arnaud Montebourg said: "The question of German nationalism is returning through the Bismarckian policies Mrs. Merkel pursues." Do you distance yourself from that?
Hollande: I think (former German Chancellor) Helmut Schmidt came up with the best response at the SPD's (recent) party conference. Our two peoples, our political elites, cannot fall back into nationalism. We have to be careful not to be to be too arrogant, which is a tendency the French can also sometimes have. And a large country with such outstanding economic performance as Germany cannot forget that it owes some of its success to demand from other European countries.
'We Need European Bonds'
SPIEGEL: You reproached Sarkozy for France having gone into "submission" towards Germany.
Hollande: I think that France has not made it clear enough recently to our German friends how important it is to introduce euro bonds as a tool against speculation. And how the necessary budget discipline needs to be accompanied by growth. And it is undoubtedly because my country is dealing with an alarmingly high deficit and a degradation of its rating by one agency, which wasn't good for an even balance of power.
SPIEGEL: How do you intend to reestablish it?
Hollande: A newly elected president with a full term in office clearly carries more weight than a president at the end of his term. If the French people affirm my position, which I have stated clearly, the other countries will have to pay attention to it. For this reason, I wanted to send a very early warning to the other leaders. They'll have to listen to me.
SPIEGEL: Are you saying that, because of your newly minted credentials, you'll be able to impose a change of course on the rest of Europe?
Hollande: Not impose! No one imposes things on anyone in Europe. That's not my notion, nor is it my temperament. The EU has always functioned under the banner of respect, equilibrium and trust. But we won't reach our goals without renegotiating. Who seriously believes -- aside from a few people in Germany, perhaps -- that we can reduce our deficits if there is no growth?
SPIEGEL: But Mrs. Merkel doesn't dispute the need for growth. The debate revolves around which path we should pursue to attain that growth.
Hollande: All the better! That means we already have some common ground to start from.
SPIEGEL: The chancellor believes that the fiscal pact is the only way Europe can reduce its debt and save the euro. What don't you like about it?
Hollande: I want to renegotiate it. Not all of it -- some things seem reasonable to me. I've already committed myself to a balanced budget and better economic governance. But what bothers me most is that there is nothing about growth in the fiscal pact. And then there is some uncertainty with regard to the automatic sanctions -- that is, what is expected of countries to reduce their deficits.
SPIEGEL: Then what exactly do you want to achieve?
Hollande: Some provisions should be renegotiated. Take, for example, the role of the European Court of Justice. I'm opposed to it having the power to intervene on national budget votes. No parliament can agree, in my eyes, to be subordinated to a court.
SPIEGEL: And what about the automatic penalties for violations?
Hollande: They are necessary. What we experienced with the Maastricht Treaty cannot be allowed to happen again.
SPIEGEL: Then why don't you want a balanced budget amendment, a so-called debt brake, anchored in the French constitution?
Hollande: Not in the constitution, but I would propose a law to the French parliament that provides for reducing the budget deficit year by year, until we have reached a balanced budget by 2017.
SPIEGEL: But you can't magically bring about growth by decree. And the EU countries have no money for economic stimulus programs, which have often fallen flat in the past, anyway.
Hollande: Yes, our countries have no leeway, except Germany.
SPIEGEL: If you feel that Germany is supposed to be the engine, then you're asking too much of your partner.
Hollande: You've significantly reduced the deficit in Germany. And you still have growth reserves. The German trade unions are in the process of negotiating wage increases. Greater purchasing power would spur domestic demand in Germany, from which we can also benefit.
SPIEGEL: And where is the money with which you want to stimulate the economy supposed to come from?
Hollande: There are a few structural funds in the EU that still have unused money in them. We also have the European Investment Bank.
SPIEGEL: Whenever the EU pays, Germany always has to pay the most.
Hollande: That's why we need European bonds. Then Europe as an institution could borrow money to initiate growth projects, with that money coming from the savings of its people.
SPIEGEL: Mrs. Merkel is opposed to euro bonds, partly because Germany would then have to pay higher interest on its debt.
Hollande: I don't want euro bonds that serve to mutualize the entire debt of the countries in the euro zone. That can only work in the longer-term. I want euro bonds to be used to finance targeted investments in future-oriented growth projects. It isn't the same thing. Let's call them "project bonds" instead of euro bonds.
SPIEGEL: Now you don't sound as radical as you did at first. Did you choose the wrong word when you called for renegotiation?
Hollande: The incumbent (Sarkozy) was the one who negotiated this treaty, but the parliament hasn't ratified it yet. I want to change a few items, not tear up the entire pact. But I do want an addendum on the subject of growth, and it ought to be written into the pact.
SPIEGEL: Even German Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück (a possible candidate for chancellor in the next German election) has called your request "naïve."
Hollande: (German Opposition leader Frank-Walter) Steinmeier and (SPD Chairman Sigmar) Gabriel have since said that wanting to realign the construct of Europe is not naïve. In an election, one needs both hope and audacity.
SPIEGEL: In the last few years, Europe was practically controlled by a German-French directorate, the "Merkozy" tandem. Will this continue with a "Merlande?"
Hollande: We're not quite at the point yet at which we combine our last names. I'm not a lukewarm European. I know that the German-French friendship is indispensable, no matter who the countries' leaders are. But we cannot create the impression that there is a duopoly in Europe that everyone else must follow. Many countries can't accept this -- not the fact that there is a leadership, but that decisions are imposed on them.
'There Will Be a Balanced Budget at the End of My Term'
SPIEGEL: You don't just want a new fiscal pact. You've also announced that you would like to see the 1963 German-French friendship treaty replaced by a new one to mark its 50-year anniversary. Is it outdated?
Hollande: No. We do want to properly celebrate it next year. The Elysée Treaty had a highly symbolic character. (Former German Chancellor Konrad) Adenauer and (former French President Charles) de Gaulle made a pact that overcame what once separated us, and it has placed our relationship on a basis of trust. In retrospect, the youth exchanges between the two countries seem particularly important to me.
SPIEGEL: Why a new treaty then?
Hollande: Updating the treaty 50 years later would send a strong message. My main goal would be to say: Germany and France are pinning their hopes on young people, in terms of education, science and innovation. It would enable us to set a good example for Europe. Perhaps we could agree that young people could complete internships in German and French companies, and that we devote more effort to learning each other's languages once again. We could also agree to jointly address the challenges our planet faces: the warming of the climate and new technologies.
SPIEGEL: Are you trying to cover up political differences of opinion with a nice gesture?
Hollande: Symbols mean a lot in politics. They indicate a will and create new realities.
SPIEGEL: France has more than €1.7 trillion ($2.24 trillion) in debt, and your political platforms contain costly promises, like 60,000 new jobs in education and a reduction of the retirement age to 60 for French people who entered the workforce early. You want to spend an additional €20 billion. Aren't you promising the moon?
Hollande: Everything I propose is backed up with solid financing, including the €20 billion. There will be a balanced budget at the end of my term.
SPIEGEL: A rival on the left has already called you "Hollandreou," in reference to Greece's former socialist prime minister, who was forced to adopt a tough austerity plan. Will you also disappoint the left?
Hollande: There is always a left that thinks it is never enough. But we'll fail if we ask for too much now.
SPIEGEL: You want to tax annual incomes in excess of €1 million at a rate of 75 percent. Isn't that populism from the left?
Hollande: The 75 percent isn't shocking. What is shocking is a salary of more than €1 million. In 2010, in the middle of the crisis, the chairmen of France's largest publicly traded companies raised their salaries by 34 percent. That's the reason for my proposal. In the crisis, they can be expected to be patriotic, which also includes solidarity.
SPIEGEL: After Sarkozy, who is seen as the president of the rich, do you intend to be the president who hates the rich?
Hollande: I don't like indecent, unearned wealth. But it is legitimate for an entrepreneur who has created something to make a good living.
SPIEGEL: Sarkozy accuses you of stigmatizing success.
Hollande: If I were to support failure, I would support Nicolas Sarkozy.
SPIEGEL: Have you already won the election? The polls predict an historically high victory of about 58 percent for you.
Hollande: If it reassures those who are mobilizing against me in European capitals, a lot can happen in two months. The incumbent is a fighter. He is lashing out, using the issues of the extreme right, like immigration, to score points. I, on the other hand, will not modify my platform. And I'll avoid cheap polemics and extreme aggressiveness. I want to convince French voters.
SPIEGEL: After his 1981 election victory, François Mitterrand, your role model, visited the grave of the great socialist reformer Jean Jaurès at the Pantheon. Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated with billionaires at Fouquet's, a luxury restaurant. Which symbol would you choose to demonstrate that you are a different president?
Hollande: Mitterrand had a sense for symbols, and he was the first Socialist president since 1958. He wanted to show that there is historical continuity, a connection with the great figures of French history. I, on the other hand, would become president in a completely different context. To me, it's important to preserve proximity to the people. I wouldn't do anything pretentious, and nothing that hurts the people who voted for me. Triumphalism isn't my thing. One is president of all the French.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Hollande, we thank you for this interview.