Sarkozy Rival Says He'd Be Tougher With Bailouts

France is part of the dual engine driving Europe out of its crisis. And the French are about to change their conductor, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to lose his re-election bid this spring. What does it mean for Europe? Francois Hollande, Sarkozy's rival, says he would change the French role in the European crisis management.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been the driving force behind efforts to end Europe's debt crisis. The leaders of the eurozone's largest economies have met so many times over the past three years that they've become known as Merkozy. But with the strong possibility that Sarkozy will lose his bid for reelection in May, the duo may be about to split up. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande is the current frontrunner in that race, and he said he wants to do things differently. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley looks at whether a power shift in France could derail Europe's recovery plans.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: You could forgive European investors and financiers for being concerned by the thought of a French president Francois Hollande. Just listen to candidate Hollande rally his supporters.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Through translator) My biggest adversary in this race doesn't have a name or a face or a party. He'll never run or even be elected, yet he governs. This adversary is the financial world.

BEARDSLEY: If elected Hollande has said he will renegotiate a new European treaty that requires countries to balance their budgets and adhere to stricter fiscal discipline. The treaty was negotiated in December and is seen a firewall against future Greek-style meltdowns.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Hollande's talk doesn't go down too well on the trading floor of French bank BNP Paribas. In such financial bastions, some make comparisons to Socialist Francois Mitterrand who nationalized French banks. But the senior economist here, Dominique Barbet, says concerns that Hollande will derail European efforts to stem the crisis are overblown. The French Socialist Party is completely different today and Hollande is no Mitterrand, he says.

DOMINIQUE BARBET: The train will continue on the same tracks in the same direction. Hollande certainly doesn't want the train to change direction. He's very much pro-European, and together with Sarkozy, he strongly believes that the solution is more Europe, not less Europe.

BEARDSLEY: Barbet says Hollande doesn't want to change the whole treaty, he simply wants to add a clause to address growth and job creation. Hollande feels the European Central Bank should play a bigger role, and he wants to look again at sharing debt through eurobonds, all things Sarkozy also wanted but didn't achieve. Philippe Marliere teaches European politics at University College London. He says by the time Hollande becomes president in May, the treaty will be signed and delivered, so his talk is just politicking.

PHILIPPE MARLIERE: Clearly, that so-called austerity treaty isn't popular in France on the left, but I don't think you've got room to maneuver.

BEARDSLEY: Because of the crisis, Hollande has backed off from some of his original electoral promises, like lowering the minimum retirement age back to 60. And just like Sarkozy, Hollande has promised to balance the French budget.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: On a recent visit to Paris, Chancellor Merkel endorsed Sarkozy's bid for a second term. She said her support was normal because the two leaders were from sister parties. After a prickly start, Merkozy has settled into a comfortable relationship. Sarkozy has tried to play up his relationships with world leaders. It's a stark contrast to Hollande's experience as a member of parliament from the French countryside and party apparatchik. Sarkozy also appeals to voters not to change captains during a storm. But economics professor Tomasz Michalski says a change in leadership won't necessarily rock the boat. He says the staff of policy advisers will remain.

TOMASZ MICHALSKI: You had Franco-German negotiating teams active for more than half a year. So it wasn't Sarkozy and Merkel who actually came up with the deal; it was the sherpas, as they call them here, basically technocrats, who came up with the solution.

BEARDSLEY: Michalski says Hollande may lack international experience, but he is advised by world renowned economists and his ideas are good. And he's got something lawyer Sarkozy doesn't have: a university degree in business and economics. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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