Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Not just France, Future of Europe too is at stake

One more article on Francois Hollande' elections.
It appeared in DNA in Mumbai.

Soon after the election of François Hollande as the President of the French Republic, many Indian friends asked me: “What will happen to Carla?” I frankly don’t know and it is irrelevant. More instructive is something which happened on Sunday night as the results were announced on French TV. In the studios of the main public channel, three senior members of the Socialist Party and 3 representatives of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) were present, waiting for the countdown.
When the digital clock showed 8:00:00 pm, the results appeared on the screens of tens of millions of French viewers: with nearly 52% of the votes, Hollande defeated Nicolas Sarkozy, the ‘hyper’ outgoing President.
Joy exploded on the Place de la Bastille, where the Hollande’s supporters had gathered in thousands, while gloom descended on La Mutualité, where the UMP had organized a political rally for Sarkozy.
What was striking was that the first person to comment on Hollande’s victory was his former companion, Ségolène Royale, the loser of the 2007 presidential battle against Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande and Royale, who lived together for 25 years, have 4 children. They met while studying at the ENA (Ecole Normale d’Administration), the most select school in France producing the top bureaucrats, diplomats and CEOs. As the charismatic Ségolène beamed while congratulating her former companion, I thought: “Poor lady!”
Five years ago, she was tipped to be the first woman President of France; around that time, she separated from Hollande and five years hence, it is Hollande who is elected to the post she had dreamed of.
It was like a Greek tragedy: she smiled and warmly congratulated Hollande (who has since another companion). We would say here in India, what Karma!
It shows one thing: Hollande had been able to rally all foes and friends around him to defeat the flamboyant Sarkozy.
It is probably during his tenure as Socialist Party’s First Secretary that Hollande learned the trick of being a man of consensus; there, he had no choice, with all the different factions and ‘currents’ trying to express their divergent views, often threatening to pull apart the Party.
It is these qualities that he will require to govern France, par excellence an ungovernable country; and this since the time of the Gaullish tribes.
One serious issue that the new President will have to face in the coming weeks is the state of Europe.
The ‘Merkozy’ couple played an important role in shaping a policy of ‘austerity’, but the tide seems to be turning. One of the main divergences between Hollande and Sarkozy during the campaign was Paris’ position vis-vis Berlin. Sarkozy must have felt the wind: after all, the German Model might not save Europe.
At the end of his campaign, during a large meeting on the Concorde Square in Paris, Sarkozy attacked the European Central Bank (ECB) asserting that the ECB should do more to revive European economic growth: “On the question of the ECB’s role in boosting growth, we French are going to open the debate.” He affirmed that there should be ‘no taboos’ in discussing the rules of the Eurozone, including a more growth-oriented role for the ECB. It was a U-turn on the President’s declared policy.
There were reasons for this: Francois Hollande was addressing another rally of sympathizers from the large esplanade of the Chateau de Vincennes, the royal castle in Paris, which was razed during the French Revolution. Hollande hammered that the German Model based on austerity should be abandoned. France’s relations with Germany and the European Union are now bound to change.
Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Hollande soon after the announcement of the results saying that she was ready to receive him ‘with open arms’, her spokesperson clarified that there was no question to come back on signed treaties, particularly on ‘financial discipline’. But can Europe continue the German way?
Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman believes that the elections in France and Greece: “were in effect referendums on the current European economic strategy, and in both countries voters turned two thumbs down.” He adds: “It’s far from clear how soon the votes will lead to changes in actual policy, but time is clearly running out for the strategy of recovery through austerity — and that’s a good thing”.
Will Hollande be able to use his consensus qualities without breaking the Franco-German couple and drop the German Model, so dear to Sarkozy?
The Socialist candidate has often repeated that when he becomes President, he would put an end to “austerity everywhere, austerity that brought desperation to people throughout Europe". One of the problems of ‘austerity’ is that it creates a depressive mood. Hollande has perhaps a chance to change the tide.
During the coming weeks, Hollande will travel to Washington at the invitation of Obama and to Berlin. His first foreign trips need to be closely followed; the future of France and Europe is at stake.

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