As Europe continues to integrate both economically and politically, the outcomes of national elections have grown in importance to reach beyond their own borders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that, and it's why she will travel on Sunday to Paris, where voters will be heading to the polls in the first round of the French presidential elections.
Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy is fighting for a second term, but he has a strong opponent. The Socialist candidate, François Hollande, has a good chance of moving into the Élysée Palace. The latest polls show Hollande leading in the first round of voting, as well as in the possible run-off vote on May 6.
For Merkel, this is an election like no other, and one that is even more important to her than many German state elections. Whoever wins in France will help drive European policy by her side. If the victor proves to be Hollande, who differs with Merkel's closely allied partner Sarkozy on many issues, not the least of which involve rescuing of the euro, things could become uncomfortable for her, both in Brussels and at home in Berlin.
Ripple Effects in Germany
The election in France could even alter the political landscape ahead of Germany's upcoming federal election in 2013. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), who are trailing the chancellor in recent polls, desperately need a boost. If Hollande were to win, it would send a signal that social democracy in Europe, and in Germany, is still a force to be reckoned with. That's how party members see it, at least.
But Merkel's center-right coalition, made up of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), hopes that Sarkozy will win in the end. "If that were not to be the case, then the government would have a large problem because, without him, the most important partner for the euro's stability would be lost," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, chairman of the FDP in the European Parliament. He says Hollande stands for an "out-dated type of social democratic policies -- more government spending, more public positions and possibly more debt."
Merkel agrees. That's why she has so strongly backed Sarkozy. What was once a cool relationship between two different types of politicians has grown into a true partnership. During the euro crisis, above all, the two leaders have proved their reliability to each other. Without Merkel and Sarkozy, it is clear that there would not have been a rescue package.
A Predictable Partner
Despite their differences, Sarkozy has been predictable for Merkel. Although, if Sarkozy were to be reelected, he would likely savor his victory, having achieved something she still has in front of her. Chancellery insiders suspect that Sarkozy would act differently after his reelection, possibly shifting the balance of power in his favor. Whether the Frenchman would then still be inclined to consider German sensitivities is questionable. In Berlin, there has recently been concern over Sarkozy's campaign promises to use the European Central Bank (ECB) more for economic growth policies, which is considered a dangerous venture by Merkel's government.
But a win by Hollande would be even trickier for Merkel. His statements suggest that he would immediately do away with the austerity measures that Merkel has pushed through in Europe. He has called for more stimulus measures for crisis countries, instead. The EU fiscal pact is the "worst enemy" of the European people, he says. If the treaty is not expanded, he would recommend to the French National Assembly that it not be ratified, he told the German business daily Handelsblatt.
Can Merkel and Hollande work together? The chancellor has given the Socialist candidate the cold shoulder for a long time but, in the meantime, her aides have carefully put out feelers. Hollande has responded by saying that, if elected, his first trip would be to Germany. The EU needs a German-French partnership during its deep crisis, he says.
Elmar Brok, a CDU politician and the chairman of the European Parliament's committee on foreign affairs, agrees. He maintains that German-French relations have never been especially influenced by the party affliations of the two countries' leaders. "Experience shows that other issues become more important, such as whether there is chemistry between the main players," he says.
In Brok's opinion, a partnership between Merkel and Hollande is possible. In the end, the conservative French President Giscard d'Estaing and the Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt worked as closely together as the Socialist Francois Mitterrand did with Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl.
But Hollande's policies could prove dangerous for Merkel's coalition. Hollande supports euro bonds, which Merkel has rejected and which could possibly mean the end of her coalition with the business-friendly FDP. He has also made some social promises at odds with Merkel's policies. He calls for a retirement age of 60 and for millionaires to pay a tax rate of 75 percent.
Those policies are unimaginable in Germany, where even the SPD has problems with them. Still, Merkel's opponents expect a lot in the event of the Socialist candidate's victory. Someone who would most like to see Sarkozy face early retirement is SPD chair Sigmar Gabriel. The exuberant party leader from the state of Lower Saxony may have little in common with the more staid Hollande, but he can build on how the French candidate designed his campaign -- left-leaning, polarizing and in stark contrast to Sarkozy on taxes, social issues and European policies. In some ways, it is how Gabriel imagines his own campaign.
Gabriel's calculates that, with a Socialist president in Paris, Merkel is more vulnerable. For example, one could be more assertive in the dealings on the fiscal pact, and it would also be easier to take a stronger position on tax and social issues. After all, if a social democrat enjoys success after pursuing a strong path of opposition in Paris, then why not in Berlin?
But the election in France could also pose problems for the Social Democrats in Germany. For one thing, they know that a Hollande victory is not yet secure, and that a win by him could also set off internal battles within the German party. The left wing of the party, for example, would push for social policies more in line with the French, something pragmatists in the party -- such as Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Peer Steinbrück -- want to prevent.
Merkel's coalition, meanwhile, is remaining cautious. CDU parliamentarian Philipp Missfelder says that the race remains open and will "go down to the wire." The results will not change German-French relations, he adds.
CDU politician Brok takes a rational view of Hollande's promises. It took Socialist Francois Mitterrand a year and a half after being elected president to distance himself from his left-wing policies, he says. Hollande wouldn't have that much time if he wins, Brok says. "He would have the time between the election and taking office to explain what his position in the European financial crisis is," Brok says. "That is how much leeway he has."
And Lambsdorff, from the FDP, says: "One can only hope that, in the end, Hollande will also be sobered by France's real economic situation."