On Sunday, France will fleetingly return to its former position of European trendsetter, with the first round of its presidential elections. Judging by the polls, the left, for the first time since 1995, will capture the Elysee presidential palace, signaling a potential resurgence of the European left and posing difficult questions for Europe in general.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, the heavy favorite, has pledged to renegotiate the terms of the European Union financial stability pact, which currently tilts heavily toward austerity, to make the union more growth-friendly. The growth-versus-austerity debate is a legitimate one. The real question, though, is how this mid-course correction might be achieved. If Europe abandons its deficit targets, it invites a dumping of European debt by investors and concomitant soaring interest costs.
It is not certain that the German taxpayer - the main financier of the bailout and firewall packages - will prove willing to prop up a currency union that does not emulate German fiscal discipline. Chancellor Angela Merkel faces growing revolt within her own Christian Democratic Party over her support for European bailouts. She has prevailed so far only by driving a hard bargain for austerity. Merkel's apprehension that the stability pact will unravel accounts for her unusual and seemingly futile decision to stump for Nicolas Sarkozy.
Francois Hollande believes that he can balance the French budget and promote growth by buffeting (pun intended ) the millionaires with a 75-percent tax bracket and increasing corporate taxation. As the EU facilitates easy movement of capital and people, Hollande's policy could merely result in upgrading London's status from France's "sixth largest city" to its fourth. French corporations would up roots and seek the more corporate-friendly climate of, say, the Czech Republic. Any attempt to resolve the problem by harmonizing taxation rates between the various EU member countries could easily trigger a breakup of the Union.
The breakdown of consensus over fiscal policy should be the least of the EU's worries. France's presidential campaign has demonstrated a strong degree of Europhobia, not merely Euroskepticism. One-third of the vote Sunday is expected to go to Marine Le Pen of the National Front and to the Left Front of Jean Luc-Melenchon, who has been the surprise of this campaign. Although Le Pen and Melenchon detest each other, they mutually loathe the EU. Were it up to them, Melenchon would radically restructure Europe and destroy German dominance, while Le Pen would take down the EU flags, repatriate powers from Brussels to Paris and ultimately leave the union.
It is false consolation to argue that, once the elections have concluded, it will be business as usual. First, the anti-EU sentiments find resonance in the more centrist parties. Sarkozy has threatened to withdraw from the borderless Europe created by the Schengen Agreement, unless Europe takes serious measures against illegal immigration. He has also called for protectionist measures that will encourage made-in-France products. Melenchon has many allies in the left wing of the Parti Socialiste, his political alma mater.
Secondly, after the presidential elections, France moves on, during the week of June 10-17, to the legislative races. French legislative elections do not work like presidential ones. In the latter, only the first- and second-place finishers move on to the decisive second round. Electoral logic dictates that in the legislative balloting, the right and the left should support the best-placed candidate within their combined camp on the second ballot. However, also-rans from the first ballot can continue their run. The National Front - whose leaders, Jean and Marine Le Pen, simply despise the center-right more than the left - has severely wounded the ruling Union for a Popular Movement in the past by refusing to withdraw its candidate in regional and legislative elections. This creates triangulaires -- a three-way competition in which the vote on the right was split.
One can expect Melenchon to reach a deal with the Socialists that will avoid the splitting of the vote on the left, but he will be able to exact a price. This will not be 1981, when the communists were marginalized to 5 percent by the Socialists in both the presidential and legislative elections and were forced to accept cabinet crumbs from Francois Mitterrand. Nor will it be the tokenism of the gauche plurielle of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in 1997, which ruled in tandem with President Jacques Chirac. If Melenchon's Left Front gets 15 percent or more on Sunday and crowns Hollande in the second round, it will enjoy a position of influence. It can reasonably demand a socialist withdrawal in many legislative second-round elections. Its parliamentary and ministerial status will then be the equivalent of the British Liberal Democrats in the coalition with David Cameron.
Sometimes a government of the left can implement an austerity policy better than a government of the right, as it commands greater trust from the unions. The track record of left governments in the Fifth Republic would argue that the initial impulse is to lavish social benefits - hiking the minimum wage, extending annual paid vacations or instituting a 35-hour work week. Even under the franc, competitive reality eventually forced a reverse course. Under the euro, due to the new rules in place, a clash between France and her European partners could erupt much sooner.
Dr. Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.
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