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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hollande's pro-growth rhetoric won over France. But what about Merkel? | Jonathan Fenby

François Hollande must now find if his rhetoric can translate into a left-leaning, pro-growth agenda for the eurozone

François Hollande has been a busy man since he won the French presidency on 6 May. But he still has all to play for on the most important field – Europe – particularly after the lack of progress at his summit with the leaders of Germany, Italy and Spain in Rome on Friday.

In the past six weeks "Mr Normal" has constituted a new government, seen his Socialist party win an overall majority in legislative elections to add to its already formidable grasp on regional decision-making, journeyed to the United States to meet President Obama and join a Nato summit, gone to Mexico for the G20 meeting, and met an array of European leaders to discuss the euro crisis. All the while he has been putting through the first planks of his campaign promises, including the lowering of the pension age to 60 for some workers, a cap on earnings of bosses of state companies, and the reduction of ministerial salaries as he tries to make the fifth republic a more down-to-earth ruling system to which ordinary people can relate.

But all this is mere preamble to the new president's main task – the effort to combine renewed growth with cuts in the government deficit as the spearhead of a new European approach that will stress economic expansion rather than austerity. This week, starting with the German-French-Italian-Spanish summit in Rome, will test whether his rhetoric can be translated into a left-leaning, pro-growth agenda for the eurozone to pull it out of its seemingly endless crisis.

The new Socialist administration in Paris believes that Hollande's policies will muster a sufficient head of steam to overcome German reservations at the European summit in Brussels at the end of this month. It hails any mention of the word "growth" by leaders in other EU countries as a sign that Paris has the wind in its sails. At last, a government of the left claims to have come up with an answer to the drawn-out eurozone crisis that goes beyond belt tightening.

That sounds very attractive, especially given the way that the austerity preached from Berlin offers a bleak future for many European nations. But the room for hope looks considerably less than optimists in Paris might believe. We are not back in the heady opening months of the previous Socialist president, François Mitterrand, who declared in 1981 that there was nothing wrong with dreaming. But, as with Mitterrand, reality has a nasty way of intruding on even the most pleasant of reveries.

The decision at the Rome summit to launch a €130bn growth package consisted largely of the re-bottling of old funds in supposedly new bottles, including use of unspent budget structural funds. The post-summit press conference showed up once more the divergence between Hollande and Angela Merkel. Financial markets will not be impressed given the continuing tide of bad news.

Though coming off the heights reached last week, Spain's medium-term borrowing reached its highest level since the euro was introduced at the beginning of this century, and an audit showed that the country's banks would need up to €62bn in additional capital to meet adverse conditions. The unelected domestic political honeymoon of Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, is over as tax increases and reductions in pensions fuel recession, and both trade unions and business are unhappy at his labour sector reforms. This makes it harder for him to push through changes while calls mount for more positive European policies to help Italy through its difficulties; and Silvio Berlusconi lobbed in a political grenade by saying that an Italian exit from the eurozone was "not blasphemy" and might not hurt the country's economy.

Above all, Merkel is resisting the growing chorus of calls for her to relax her resistance to measures that could ease the pressure on other countries to reduce their debts, and her limitation of Germany's readiness to commit itself further to bailout packages. She and Hollande have avoided an outright confrontation so far but it is difficult to see a collision being put off much further unless one or other cedes ground. Facing a federal election next year, Merkel will not wish to be seen by a suspicious German electorate as a lady ready for turning; Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, took the occasion of the Rome summit to warn Greece that it must fulfil the conditions of its aid programme with no room for manoeuvre on the target of reducing debt to 120% of GDP by 2020.

As Simon Tilford notes in a report for the Centre for European Reform, Germany seems to have a sense of invulnerability amid the storms around it. "For many Germans, including many senior policymakers, the crisis seems to be someone else's problem," Tilford writes. "Merkel's obduracy is widely credited with striking a blow for Germany's national interests … This is puzzling, because Germany is much more vulnerable than German policymakers appear to believe. And Germany's strategy for dealing with the crisis is maximising, not minimising, the risks to the country's economic and political interests."

He is right, but national psychologies are difficult to shake even if Merkel was persuaded of the need to do so. Equally, with the wind of his double election victories behind him, the French leader is unlikely to be the first to blink. He knows that he courts domestic disillusion if he does so. He is the first president of the fifth republic who has inherited a political party rather than forming one in his own image, and that comes with a price in a country where many on the left (not to mention the Front National) are wary of a Europe they see as run by market-friendly bureaucrats ready to act in contravention of the democratic verdict of voters.

The trouble is that more papering over of the euro-cracks is not going to pass muster, not only with markets but also with jaundiced citizens who are realising the extent to which their leaders have failed to get to grips with the ongoing crisis. Hollande's big pro-growth story may have appeared a panacea but his policy of fiscal pumping rather than structural reform will not please the Germans and offers no longer-term solution to France's lack of competitiveness – highlighted by news that Air France-KLM (in which the state has a 16% stake) is to cut 5,000 jobs in France after losing €597m in the first quarter of this year, a harbinger of more bad tidings in a country with a 10% unemployment rate. French unions warn that 45,000 jobs in all may go in all in sectors such as steel, telecoms and automobiles.

Hollande may have won office as the prophet of expansion but his promises involve apparently irreconcilable aims. Adding to the 56% of GDP already accounted for by state spending, his pledges in areas such as education will unbalance the economy further. Hitting this year's state deficit target of 4.5% of GDP will need additional savings of €10bn, while achieving the 3% goal for 2013 will require an extra €25bn, and at a time of weak growth. Simply soaking the rich through higher taxes will not be enough. Something else will have to give.

On the European front, the Franco-German entente on which the present European framework – and the euro – was built has changed in nature as Berlin has become a political power as well as the continent's economic motor. The heritage of leadership from Paris handed down by Charles de Gaulle has evaporated. But the election of Hollande was, in part, a refusal by France's voters to submit to policies dictated from across the Rhine – even if German funding will be needed for the eurozone public works programme the new president wants, and even if the strong nationalist vote in both France's elections bodes ill for the sovereignty-surrendering fiscal union the eurozone needs to function efficiently.

Germany's policies may be what Europe should need for its long-term health, but the crisis management on offer is far more short-term. Mr Normal has to play with the hand he dealt himself, and the backing he has been receiving may end up by making Germany all the more determined to stick to its guns; the more isolated Merkel is, the more she may need to prove her determination to the electorate. The Hollande saga is, indeed, only just beginning, and its outcome is far less certain than the impressive electoral margin of victory he and his party racked up might suggest.

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