Usually in France the subject of Europe is absent from presidential debates. True, the topic is both important and controversial, as the 1992 and 2005 referenda demonstrated, but the divide is not the neat left-versus-right one which always ends up shaping the electoral battle. Both sides in fact include a significant Eurosceptic component, so rather than risk splitting their own camp, candidates usually opt to skirt the issue – only to see it raising its head later in the national debate, often in unplanned ways.
However, this time around the Europe question is economically and politically centre stage. Even though the last three months have been calmer, the crisis which was raging at the end of 2011 has not been resolved. The reduction in Greek debt has temporarily removed one source of tension, the European Central Bank has managed to let fever abate by administering a massive dose of tranquillisers, and governments have finally agreed on the size of their firewall, but the underlying problems subsist. The interdependence of banks and sovereigns remains a permanent source of fragility, central banks continue to substitute drying-up private capital flows within the Eurozone, and the South has barely started regaining competitiveness relative to the North. Moreover, the European economic policy framework has become considerably tougher in the last few months, even before the new fiscal treaty enters into force: European law sets stricter fiscal targets, imposes tighter surveillance and now extends to current account deficits which had been neglected hitherto.
It would have been a very serious thing for democracy if an issue of this magnitude had been omitted, all the more so because France itself is in a delicate situation within a Europe where the divide is no longer between East and West but between a prosperous North and a struggling South. Fortunately the two main candidates have each found their own angle to tackle Europe. François Hollande has made an unorthodox stand in calling for the renegotiation of the recently signed fiscal treaty, he is riding to the banner of growth, and he is attempting a subtle balancing act of budgetary responsibility and the fight against austerity. Nicolas Sarkozy, for his part, endorses the constraints of the new fiscal treaty, he is clear-cut about the need to restore the competitiveness of the French economy, and in order to distinguish himself – just as the others - from the Brussels consensus, he has opted to thumb his nose at the EU on migration policy and to oppose opening European procurement markets unless third countries reciprocate.
In rhetorical terms, both have succeeded. Neither can be accused of conformism or of ducking the fight. They are giving reassurances to the Eurosceptic wing of their coalitions and for the other half of their constituencies, they are hinting at ambitious European plans. One of them (Hollande) can be given credit for having raised the key issue of growth on which if elected he will find allies in Europe, though he is unlikely to find many to renegotiate the treaty itself. The other (Sarkozy) can be credited with not putting his head in the sand on the competitiveness issue, even though he is partially at odds with himself in flirting with protectionism. And both say that they have understood that the era of fiscal largesse is over.
The problem is that, however nimble this positioning may be, they do not contribute to solving the basic dilemma the country has to face. France, which nurtured the idea of the euro from the outset and, twenty years ago, won over German scepticism, is now having second thoughts. It does not know anymore where its own project should lead to. A large segment of public opinion sees Europe as a source of constraints and the Trojan horse of liberalisation and globalisation. Germany’s undisputed economic dominance and it policy assertiveness are a source of anguish.
In this context French political leaders on both sides are uncertain about their aims and strategy. As the crisis reveals the inadequacies and fragilities of the euro as a currency, a first option is to aim at a more integrated “euro union” around common supervision of, and crisis resolution for the banking sector, a fiscal union involving a partial mutualisation of government debt, and whatever political integration is needed to give democratic legitimacy to fiscal and banking supervision. The second option is, for essentially political reasons, to oppose any additional transfer of sovereignty and keep monetary union as it is – despite the risk that a fragile Eurozone might stumble further under market assault.
Both options are possible, but willy-nilly a strategic decision will need to be made the morning after the 6 May. Starting with Germany, France’s partners in Europe will not give the next president time to procrastinate. They expect from him a clear stance as a precondition to key discussions on the future of Europe. It is to be feared that the next occupant of the Elysée will have to make a choice without the election having given citizens the chance to express their own views.