Will French Election Mark A Reversal Of Austerity?

Socialist Francois Hollande, (left) and France's incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, pose for photos before facing off during a contentious debate Wednesday on national TV. Opinion polls favor Hollande heading into Sunday's election.


ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST: Now to France which holds its presidential election runoff this Sunday. The possibility that President Nicolas Sarkozy may lose is making waves across Europe. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are the architects of Europe's fiscal austerity pact. And the man who may win the French election has been campaigning against austerity. Socialist candidate Francois Hollande says Europe cannot emerge from its crisis on a dose of austerity alone.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris on the many people who have rallied to his message.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This year's French presidential campaign spawned a huge anti-capitalist backlash. On May Day, the traditional workers holiday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to denounce the greedy world of finance - the bankers, traders and profit seekers who they say have ruined regular, hardworking people.


BEARDSLEY: In a catchy phrase that rhymes in French, protesters chanted, there's plenty of money for the people, you'll find it in the CEO's pockets.


BEARDSLEY: This mood was reflected across Europe in similar May Day demonstrations. Many Europeans are also angry about austerity measures squeezing the working-class, from Athens to Lisbon. After months of painful cuts with nothing to show for it, they say they feel the path set out by Merkel and Sarkozy, often referred to as Merkozy, is the wrong one.

In Paris, 30-year-old protester Gwenael Braz carries a Greek flag. On his T-shirt the word Merkozy has a giant X through it. Braz says the people of Greece and other countries have suffered, and French voters will change that on Sunday.


GWENAEL BRAZ: When you vote as a French, you have more power within Europe than when you vote as a Greek. We have to change the Merkozy things. We can put Sarkozy out. A Greek cannot.


BEARDSLEY: In a contentious presidential debate last night, Hollande accused Sarkozy of selling out French interests to German demands for austerity. Hollande says he will push to renegotiate the austerity pact to include proposals to boost growth and job creation.

FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Through Translator) My obligation, if I become president, is to give another direction to Europe than the one that is being forced upon us today.

BEARDSLEY: Hollande went on to say, that he has noticed a change of mindset in Europe since he began talking about growth. Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, even though they're conservative governments, they're all talking about a different approach now, he said.

Analysts say opposition to the Merkozy austerity dictate is growing across Europe, and many now view a possible Hollande election as a way to shift the dynamics. Beppe Severgnini is a financial columnist with Italian newspaper Crreire dela Sera.

BEPPE SEVERGNINI: It's something that in Italy is felt very, very deeply. Someone who thinks that growth is more important than austerity, and can sort of join forces to tell Markel that it's not enough to say cut, cut, cut. And we really need to grow.

BEARDSLEY: Mathieu Pigasse, with financial advisory firm Lazard, says the change is not just political.

MATTHIEU PIGASSE: (Through Translator) As the political discourse changes in Europe, we're also seeing the perception of the financial markets evolve. The markets now want to see a growth-based strategy adopted.

BEARDSLEY: But Tomasz Michalski, a professor at HEC, one of France's top business schools, says he doesn't believe a Europe-wide growth strategy can work.

TOMASZ MICHALSKI: The reasons for the malaise, the current malaise in different countries are completely different. So it's not clear that having a growth pact will address all the problems of all countries at the same time. And basically, a lot of countries, they want these growth policies exactly to avoid painful reforms.

BEARDSLEY: The austerity pact pushed through by Merkozy still has to be ratified by parliaments in many countries, including Germany and France. Sunday's French presidential runoff may determine which course Europe is to follow.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.