France’s Sarkozy faces criticism at home over European debt crisis actions

December 6, 2011

As Europe battles a financial crisis, President Nicolas Sarkozy has portrayed himself as a steady captain at the helm of the French ship, expertly navigating stormy seas.

But as France moves toward a presidential election campaign, some mutineers have arisen among the crew, challenging his cooperation with Germany and questioning whether it is wise to seek mandatory limits on budget deficits in the 27-nation European Union.

Sarkozy and his lieutenants have described the decision to work hand-in-hand with the rigorous Chancellor Angela Merkel as an often difficult mission but a recognition of reality. Germany is the E.U.’s biggest economy, they point out, adding that Merkel’s insistence on deficit controls is the only way to bring European debt levels down far enough to restore credibility in the markets.

Whatever the outcome of the French-German proposals put forward Monday — likely to become clear after an emergency E.U. summit Thursday — Sarkozy’s close coordination with Merkel has revealed that the ghosts of World War II are still alive in France. Indeed, several of Sarkozy’s political opponents have accused him of capitulating to an arrogant and resurgent German powerhouse.

Arnaud Montebourg, a rising star of the Socialist Party known for his nationalist views, accused Merkel of waging “Bismarck-style diplomacy” in browbeating Sarkozy during marathon meetings between French and German officials in recent weeks. Otto von Bismarck was a 19th-century German leader famed for using the country’s power ruthlessly to further its interests in an uncertain constellation of European alliances.

Going a step further, Jean-
Marie Le Guen, another Socialist member of Parliament, accused Sarkozy of acting like “Daladier at Munich.” Edouard Daladier was the French premier who in 1938 signed off on Adolf Hitler’s annexation of a part of Czechoslovakia, a concession widely considered to have emboldened the German dictator in his march toward war.

Although remarkable in a country where Franco-German friendship has become a talisman, both accusations were dismissed as rough campaigning as France gets ready for the vote in which Sarkozy is running for reelection against a Socialist challenger, Francois Hollande. Nevertheless, they provided fodder for Les Guignols, the puppets who parody French politicians on television and who this week imitated a shrill Merkel scolding Sarkozy for spending too much on cellphone calls.

Hollande dissociated himself from the most pointedly anti-
German comparisons. But he also described a situation in which Sarkozy seemed to be following along after Merkel, directly challenging the president’s self-
portrayal as a reliable leader.

In addition, Hollande criticized the agreement with Merkel as “an illusion,” saying that only financing by the European Central Bank could have an immediate effect on skeptical markets. “This is a long process,” he said in a radio interview Tuesday when asked about the proposed E.U. treaty changes. “And now they want it to calm down markets that work in real time.”

Asked about the anti-German criticism at a joint news conference with Merkel, Sarkozy responded that Franco-German friendship has been a steady policy, under Socialist as well as conservative governments, for more than half a century and that those bringing the charges were irresponsible people who had “discredited themselves.”

French public opinion, usually quick to flare in such polemics, responded tepidly to the idea that a resurgent Germany was wielding too much power. “The Germans had a strong economy before the war, and they have a strong economy now, but so what?” said a waiter at a cafe on Paris’s chic Boulevard St. Germain. “These are two very different countries.”

Merkel, apparently unafraid to step into the French political fray, said France and Germany will “never again” be adversaries and, in what sounded like an endorsement of her fellow conservative, added: “Those who talk like that are in the opposition. So we should be happy that we are the ones doing the work and not them.”

In a demonstration of the close ties, Hollande was in Germany on Monday, conferring with his counterparts in the opposition Social Democratic Party and pushing his vision of a response to the crisis that he said would promote economic growth as well as control debt. But the brunt of Socialist Party criticism was that the Sarkozy-Merkel deal would not solve Europe’s immediate credit crisis and, in the long run, would condemn France and other countries to a diet of relentless economic austerity.

“This agreement is the austerity agreement,” said Martine Aubry, the party’s first secretary.

Hollande’s main economics aide, Michel Sapin, said the agreement would produce “a treaty of pure budgetary constraint for later and nothing for now.”

“Unfortunately, there is no surprise,” he added. “It looks like a complete, total and absolute alignment with the German position.”

The comments reflected one of the major themes of Hollande’s campaign, which is that Sarkozy is promising tight budgets and hard times while Hollande can solve the debt crisis and promote growth at the same time. Hollande also aimed criticism at what he said would be loss of French sovereignty if the accord were put into place. “The problem is not that there would be budget controls,” he said. “The problem is the fact that there would be automatic sanctions.”

In a nation still under the political shadow of Charles de Gaulle, the issue of sovereignty was key in the negotiations between Sarkozy and Merkel.

The German leader wanted a supranational body, the European Court of Justice or the European Commission, to decide which governments were overspending and how to sanction their deficits. But Sarkozy, protecting his flank as the campaign loomed, insisted that in the democracies of Europe only elected leaders could decide on national budgets.

The result was the compromise announced Monday: The European Court of Justice is to point out errant governments, but the 27 national leaders, with a supermajority of 85 percent, are to rule on instances of violation and decide on sanctions.

After more than 40 years of European integration, the small step toward more integration proposed by Sarkozy and Merkel aroused only limited criticism. Marine Le Pen, who heads the ultranationalist National Front, singled it out as outrageous but focused more strongly on the fact that governments already struggling to avoid deficits would have to pay fines if they fell behind.

“Can you imagine that?” she asked.

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