French frontrunner Hollande faces fraught foreign agenda

May 03, 2012 - 08:14
  • France's Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French presidential election, Francois Hollande (L) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the TV broadcast studio. PHOTO/ AFP

After vowing to renegotiate Europe's fiscal pact and quickly pull French troops from Afghanistan, Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande will face major foreign policy challenges if elected president Sunday.

But analysts say fears that a Hollande presidency would isolate France are overblown and that the biggest change if he replaces incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy would be one of style, not substance.

"A Hollande presidency would be very different from a Sarkozy presidency," said Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Hollande is a man naturally inclined towards looking for consensus, a man who likes to take his time," he said. "The hallmark of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency was exactly the opposite -- a capacity for swift action."

Hollande, who polls show is the clear favourite to defeat Sarkozy, faces a loaded international agenda if he wins in Sunday's run-off vote.

He has said his first priority will be to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss his plan to rejig the European Union fiscal pact negotiated between her and Sarkozy, to emphasise economic growth as much as austerity.

On May 18-19 he would head to Camp David in the US for talks with Barack Obama and other Group of Eight leaders and on May 20-21 to a NATO summit in Chicago -- where the French withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a hot topic.

But it is the meeting with Merkel, who openly backed fellow right-winger Sarkozy during the campaign, that everyone is waiting for.

Hollande set off alarm bells in European capitals early in the campaign when he said he would renegotiate the hard-fought fiscal pact, which sets limits on government spending to tackle the eurozone debt crisis.

Hollande has denounced the deal for focusing purely on austerity and said he would not ratify the pact unless it includes measures to spur economic growth.

The meeting with Merkel -- the key driver of European austerity -- is expected to be frosty, but analysts said Hollande is likely to look for a compromise with Berlin and has some momentum on his side.

"The Socialist Party's campaign rhetoric has worried some of the centre-right leaders in other European capitals, but it shouldn't take long for Francois Hollande to dispel any fears," Klau said.

Observers said Hollande will go into the meeting with fresh ammunition after a number of European leaders, including European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, cautiously echoed his calls for more focus on growth.

"What he will go for and be satisfied with is slightly more emphasis on growth," said John Gaffney, a France expert at the Aston Centre for Europe, based in the British city of Birmingham.

"If he gets that, I think he will rapidly try to move back to a more Euro-cooperative, Euro-friendly business as usual," he said.

A Western diplomat in Paris said Hollande's team was already reaching out to European governments to ensure their relationship gets off to a strong start.

"We see the Socialists nearly every day," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are not worried about the positions of a president Hollande."

But Hollande may have more difficulty with his promise to take France's 3,000 troops out of the NATO-led mission Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a year earlier than Sarkozy had planned.

Klau said the move "could create a serious problem for the alliance as a whole if the withdrawal is happening in an uncoordinated fashion."

Hollande has also criticised Sarkozy's decision to bring France back into NATO's military command after more than 40 years, but analysts said he is unlikely to reverse the move.

In any event, experts said Hollande would likely be quite cautious in his first international outings, given his dearth of foreign experience and pressing issues at home.

"His lack of experience will make him listen to advisors, will make him very, very cautious," Gaffney said. The Socialists "have been out of power for 10 years -- it's 2002 since any of them had the levers of government."

But even in the long run, experts said there is little chance Hollande will be the kind of risk-taker Sarkozy was on issues like halting the Russia-Georgia conflict or taking the leading role in military action in Libya.

"On the level of the two men as characters," Gaffney said, "I think Hollande has nothing of the kind of can-do approach that Sarkozy showed in Georgia and in Libya."

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