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The race to preserve 'Merkozy'

By Antonio Barroso

With the survival of "Merkozy" at stake, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has inserted herself into the French presidential election on behalf of her eurozone partner, President Nicolas Sarkozy. It's not just because a Francois Hollande victory would make finding a new pithy nickname for the German-French duopoly difficult (though it would be a challenge -- "Hollmerk?" "Merkande?") Or because it has become trendy for like-minded political figures to support each other in races across national boundaries within the EU.

Merkel views the preservation of her partnership with Sarkozy as an important element in the timely resolution of the eurozone crisis, despite their rocky start, numerous disagreements, and natural rivalry. The devil that Merkel now knows well, and has spent considerable capital cultivating, is preferable to the devil she doesn't know, and can only speculate about -- a socialist who, while pro-European, has bashed the financial sector, disparaged austerity, and promised to maintain social spending. There are too many uncertainties in a Hollande presidency for Merkel to sit idly by in Berlin as Sarkozy continues to trail significantly in the polls ahead of the April 22 first-round vote.

That's why Merkel has actively stumped for Sarkozy, tying German conservatism to its French counterpart. The alliance between the German and French leaders is not just a personal bond, forged through the crucible of the eurozone crisis. Merkel believes she now has a partner in Sarkozy who shares her beliefs about the currency bloc -- and will push those interests (which also happen to be Germany's interests) in Brussels. After all of the painstaking negotiations and one-on-one meetings, she's not about to start all over again.

Hollande's political party, his campaign statements, and the fragility of the eurozone have many observers worried that a Hollande presidency would put France -- and the eurozone -- into greater danger. Some view Merkel's visible and vocal support of Sarkozy as validation of this viewpoint. But there are a few reasons why a Merkel-Hollande partnership would not be the market-rattling, eurozone-damaging outcome that many predict.

As wary as Hollande might be about austerity, or about the German model, his ability to take the EU in his ideal policy direction is limited. Why? Because the markets are on Merkel's side. Hollande only has so much room to maneuver before the markets punish France with higher borrowing costs, which would in turn threaten the integrity of the eurozone's bailout fund and its continuing efforts to prevent contagion. The pro-European Hollande does not want to preside over a new ugly chapter in the eurozone crisis.

It's also important to distinguish between what is campaign fodder and how Hollande would govern. Yes, Hollande has criticized the fiscal pact that Sarkozy, along with 24 other European leaders, agreed to in order to harmonize budgetary policies in member nations. But when Sarkozy is making his ability to lead France during an economic crisis a central campaign issue, Hollande has to find a way to distinguish himself. Hollande also can't proclaim the virtues of austerity -- and what is inherently a conservative fiscal policy -- as the leader of France's socialist party. Under the pressure of governing one of the eurozone's two major players, Hollande's policies are unlikely to differ drastically from Sarkozy's.

So is Merkel expending too much energy to stump for her favored candidate? Not necessarily. Hollande's socialist leanings, his reluctance to alienate his core voters, and his lack of a personal relationship with Merkel all suggest that decision-making between the two powers, and the eurozone as a whole, would be slower with Hollande as president. These ingredients are also the makings of a difficult personal relationship between the two leaders. And if there is one thing that markets have taught the eurozone, it is that dawdling in decision-making can be nearly as painful as making the wrong decision. The importance of Merkel's ability to pick up the phone, call Paris, and hear a familiar voice on the other end of the line should not be discounted. She doesn't have the luxury of time to cultivate another ally in the Elysee Palace.

Antonio Barroso is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Europe practice.

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