On France2 last night and in Le Monde this morning, François Hollande lays out his position on "renegotiating" the European agreement on budgetary discipline that will be signed on March 1. In President Sarkozy's joint press interview with Chancellor Merkel, the president made it clear that he will attack Hollande on this plank in his platform. A treaty is a pledge made in the name of France and cannot be honorably "renegotiated": this, in sum, is Sarkozy's position, and he will maneuver to make Hollande seem weak, vacillating, unreliable, and dishonorable for saying that he will refuse to be bound by the will of his predecessor, who, like another well-remembered French head of state, seems to believe that "l'État, c'est moi."
Hollande's deconstruction of Sarkozy's royalist interpretation of the nation's word is understated but no less deft for that. He makes it clear that renegotiation does not mean repudiation, and he recognizes the need for budgetary discipline as an important principle. Nevertheless, he feels that the treaty, negotiated in haste, lacks precision as to the conditions under which parties would be subject to scrutiny of their budgetary decisions as well as to the penalties that might be imposed. These are certainly reasonable clarifications to ask for, and it would be irresponsible of the legislature to ratify the treaty without having them.
But the substance of Hollande's position is not the most important thing. What is impressive is that he has managed to stake out a position distinct from Sarkozy's without recourse to demagogic attacks and with the articulation of additional principles beyond budgetary discipline--concerning growth and employment--that ought to be included in any European stability agreement. Indeed, he puts his finger on the weakness of the German position and of the German economy: the insistence on internal budgetary balance and wage restraint does not help to redress structural imbalances within the eurozone. If Germany were to share its productivity gains with its work force, boosting domestic demand, this would help, and it makes sense for France to lead the group of nations in trade deficit with Germany in making this point.
In short, Hollande has at last articulated a statesmanlike position on the central issue of the European crisis. In his quiet way, he has exposed the hollowness of Sarkozy's dramatization of the situation and demonization of his opponent. The Socialist candidate has thus taken a major step toward transforming himself into a figure whom voters can plausibly imagine as president of the Republic. This is a sine qua non of electability.
Meanwhile, the UMP, behind Claude Guéant, has taken a giant step in the other direction, laying bare its panicky desperation and readiness to cross previously taboo lines to preserve its power. Guéant's disdainful grin and dismissive demeanor in yesterday's Assembly confrontation demonstrated a haughty contempt for the sensibilities of the many Frenchmen offended by his remarks about a supposed hierarchy of civilizations.
Thus a President Hollande has clearly become a more plausible figure for many more people than was the case a few weeks ago. The polls reflect this, with one recent sounding giving Hollande a 59-41 victory in the second round. Such a lopsided vote would mark an extraordinary repudiation of Sarkozysme.