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France's New Leader Negotiates To Keep Promises


There is another important vote taking place in Europe today. The French go to the polls and they're expected to give a clear parliamentary majority to the new socialist president, Francois Hollande. There are high expectations for Hollande in both France and throughout Europe. And he may soon have carte blanche to implement his policies.

But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, it won't be easy.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: These Paris first graders are excited to be out of the classroom and following their teachers on a field trip. President Hollande has promised to hire 60,000 new teachers - a popular idea with the faculty here who are stretched thin. But these days, such public sector spending makes France the odd man out in Europe.

Franz Olivier Giesbert, editor of Le Point magazine, isn't sure Hollande will have the guts to take on the structural reforms France really needs.

FRANZ OLIVIER GIESBERT: Well, it's very difficult when you're a politician and you're just elected and you're very popular, it's very difficult to do the painful job right now.

BEARDSLEY: France is a hybrid, with an economy that reflects aspects of both northern and southern Europe. Hollande has become the de facto leader of the pro-growth camp - countries, mostly from the south, which believe Germany's austerity approach won't end the debt crisis. Hollande wants to convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree to eurobonds as a way to share the eurozone's debt burden.

Gerald Andrieu of the news magazine Marianne says Hollande faces a dilemma.

GERALD ANDRIEU: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: He has to fulfill some of his promises to the French, Andrieu says, but stay serious on fiscal issues for the Germans.

CHARLES GRANT: France potentially has leverage on Germany. But only if it handles Germany in a kind of subtle way.

BEARDSLEY: That's Charles Grant with the Centre for European Reform. He says the French-German partnership was long considered the motor of the eurozone. But economically, as Germany has soared and France declined, the balance of power has changed dramatically between the continent's number one and number two economies.


BEARDSLEY: Perhaps aware of France's diminished influence over Germany, Hollande travelled to Italy on Thursday to seek a partner in what the French media described as a new axis to put pressure on Merkel. Italian Premier Mario Monti pointed out that Italy and France have together contributed 40 percent of the eurozone's bailout funds.

ANGELA MERKEL: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: On Friday, Merkel lashed out, saying there was no trust between European partners and calling the austerity versus growth debate mediocre and bogus.

Charles Grant says despite Merkel's tough talk, Germany could consider the French agenda, if Hollande is willing to bargain.

GRANT: Pushing this agenda of eurobonds, but without sort of attempting to give something in return, that's the problem. And many German officials said to me, we might talk about eurobonds. We might consider a banking union as the French want, but only if the French can show they're serious about austerity or at least they're really ready for fiscal union. That means giving up sovereignty over their budget policy.

BEARDSLEY: Suddenly, the German-French relationship has become acrimonious, a far cry from the days when the countries two leaders went by one name: Merkozy. Grant says the back and forth over the debt crisis and who will be the first to give in, could be overtaken by events.

GRANT: If Greece leaves the euro, then France and Germany will have to come together and come up with a grand bargain.

BEARDSLEY: Because if they don't, he says, the eurozone could unravel quickly.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.