19 September 2014

A New dynamic and sea change in France… and beyond?

 - Tuesday, 08 May 2012, 00:00

by Leo Brincat

Only time will tell whether France and Europe will really experience a new dynamic and sea change in the coming months and years

But the outcome in various elections, particularly France, at a time when Europe is deeply embedded in one of its biggest crises, with only remote chances and prospects of recovery in the near term, seems to be pointing in this direction.

German friends tell me that the past Sunday their attention was far more focused on what was happening in France than on the elections taking place in Germany in Schleswig-Holstein or else on the forthcoming ones in North Rhine-Westphalia – a crunch election if there ever was one, in Germany’s most populous state.

Although Hollande pledged to end Germany’s dominance in Europe, I am more than certain that in spite of the German Chancellor having rooted publicly for Sarkozy right throughout the campaign, there will come a time within the next weeks, if not even days, when Hollande and Merkel will sit down together to do business together.

The more ominous have been Hollande’s noises about the European fiscal pact and his public appeals and commitments to ease the EU’s tough austerity policies, it is even more important for Germany that the two leaders of the two most dominant countries within the EU should sit down together to lay down some form of revised and updated roadmap together, even if they might be ideologically poles apart on the current European project itself.

Hollande might not forget easily that Merkel had been asked originally by Sarkozy to help in his campaign, only for Sarko to back down on his original request, when it became clear to him that his close ties with the German leader were not helping his poll ratings.

While many tend to speculate that in the eventuality of a Sarkozy victory he would have behaved differently in his dealings with Berlin future, I can nevertheless predict that the whole tone and climate of forthcoming EU summits will now undergo a sea change too as a result of the French elections held on Sunday.

The Conservative media internationally have been accusing France and its new President of being in denial, but in my opinion the French people have spoken and their verdict needs to be fully respected.

European governments and civil society will be committing a grave mistake to ignore the signal that the French result will have sent particularly since its implications go far beyond standard French borders. If borders are anymore relevant, in this day and age.

In a remark that suited Lawrence Gonzi in a pitch perfect manner, during their recent three-hour debate, Hollande told Sarkozy clearly: ‘Nothing ever seems to be your fault whatever happens’ while demolishing with a punch line or two another outtake of GonziPN – Sarkozy’s constant attempts to demonise as best can the smooth, cool, and smiling new French President.

It is interesting to note that the first polls of the debate – which were meant to be Sarkozy’s trump card – showed that Hollande came across not only as the best of the two; but even more importantly as the nicest, most sincere candidate and the one closest to their daily concerns.

This is Gonzi’s major failure and it turned out to be Sarkozy’s Achilles’ Heel too.

The debate was meant to trigger a Sarkozy bounce back.

In actual fact, it consolidated Hollande’s advance.

The last straw was the news that came midweek, that centrist Francois Bayrou broke with his party’s tradition by stating categorically that he would vote for Hollande.

While Gonzi has been resorting to his kitchen encounters to try and bring out the human element within him – a bit rather late in the day according to the discerning amongst us – Sarkozy seems to have played a similar limp trick.

To show himself as more human and close to the people, Sarkozy said that he was so indifferent towards cold technology that he didn’t know how to work the three TV remote controls at home. Even suggesting that if his wife was not with him, he could barely operate the television!

This might all sound like sheer gossip and political talk of a lite order, but unfortunately it shows to what extent certain politicians go to, to experience an image change when they happen to be so close to their political ‘death bed’.

The same applies for the fear factor.

While Sarkozy implied that with Hollande at the helm France would become a second Greece, we have already heard such talk from GonziPN weeks ago. Within the context of a would-be PL victory.

The same applies for all the talk of destabilisation. While Sarko has been implying that an Hollande victory would destabilise France, people with political baggage like the minister of finance have been trying to gloss over the continuity Gonzi had promised prospective investors in London during a business breakfast should there be a change in government in Malta, by doing the right opposite.

If quoted correctly he was reported to have said that political uncertainty in Malta is only affecting the Maltese economy because investors feared that the PL would or could be elected soon, as well as because they still do not know the details of Muscat’s economic plans and strategies.

If there is one area where the French do not expect a sea change beyond EU affairs, this is in the international scene. Where Hollande’s foreign policy positions on issues such as the Iranian nuclear programme, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were not radically different from current French foreign policy.

But even here there were certain nuances that cannot be easily ignored or dismissed.

Hollande understandably declared that there were statements, postures, attitudes, and choices that have hurt his country in recent years and sometimes caused trouble internationally. He cited as an example Sarkozy’s Dakar speech to Africa which was meant to signal a change in France’s controversial relations with its former African colonies, but that was widely criticised for being patronising at best and condescending at worst.

Hollande definitely struck a chord when he stressed the need to restore the prestige of French identity and to increase the attractiveness of their language and their culture.

Hollande’s litmus test will be as to how he will effectively address France’s own difficult struggles to keep its budget under control, to shore up its fragile banks and also to spur urgently needed economic growth.

France’s national debt is 90% of GDP and its public spending is among Europe’s highest at 56%. Unemployment is nearing 10% while youth unemployment is at a record 22% while the trade deficit continues to balloon.

The French presidency will be judged on how it will address public concerns, anxieties and aspirations as well as how it will manage to restore France’s competitiveness while attempting to bolster its faltering economy.

But in the final analysis, all eyes will be on the odd couple – Merkel and Hollande – to see if they can continue to lead Europe or not and also manage to move it out of its economic doldrums.

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Leo Brincat is the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Sustainable Development & Climate Change

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