In normal years, a presidential election in France wouldn’t garner much interest here in the United States. But this isn’t a normal year. The euro zone is lurching from crisis to crisis, and France, the continent’s second-largest economy, will need to play a crucial role in fixing things.

Will Francois Hollande shake up Europe? (Bob Edme/AP)

To get a better sense of the stakes involved, I called up Arthur Goldhammer, who is currently at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, and who has been following the twists and turns of the election closely over at his excellent French Politics blog.

Brad Plumer: What’s your basic summary of what France’s election is about?

Arthur Goldhammer: I think the defining characteristic of this election is that the primary cleavage has not been between right and left, but between the first and second tier candidates. In the top tier, there’s Sarkozy and Hollande, with around 30 percent each. Then in the next tier, there’s [Jean-Luc] Melenchon on the extreme left and [Marine] Le Pen on the extreme right.

The top tier favors some version of adaptation to the global economy, they want to enable the E.U. to survive and to improve France’s competitiveness in the world. To them, the biggest issue is what to do about the euro crisis, although curiously they’ve had very little discussion of that. The second-tier candidates want to resist the forces of globalization. So in France, about 55 to 60 percent of voters are in favor of adaptation, but there’s about 30 percent voting to resist. That’s a strong anti-establishment vote.

BP: So what happens after the first round of voting this Sunday?. Who advances and who wins the runoff in May?

AG: The polling for the second round has been extremely steady and consistent, showing Hollande with a comfortable lead, sitting at 54 or 55 percent of the vote. The race between him and Sarkozy might be a little closer because there will be a debate between the first and second rounds [of voting]. Sarkozy is a good debater. Hollande has adopted the front-runner strategy of staying quiet, but Sarkozy might be able to flush him out in the debate, and that could cost him. But unless all the polls are way off, it’s likely that Hollande will win.

BP: So just looking at the front-runners, Sarkozy and Hollande — the big issue here is what to do about the ongoing euro crisis. Do they differ much in their approaches?

AG: The big difference is that Hollande is calling for an open renegotiation of what he calls the “Merkozy pact,” which urges each euro zone country to adopt a balanced budget amendment into their constitutions. Sarkozy doesn’t go this far because he’s a party to that pact. But underneath it all, they both agree that something needs to change in Europe. Sarkozy in his early years was quite outspoken in attacking the German view of Europe and the policies of the European Central Bank, and he’s aware of the need to find ways to stimulate growth in the euro zone.

If Hollande is elected and goes through with trying to renegotiate the euro zone pact, he’ll find support from countries like Spain and Italy. Spain desperately needs to do something to bring down its 25 percent unemployment rate, and Mario Monti in Italy was ostensibly put in there to implement the pro-austerity consensus, but he’s having difficulty with the country’s labor unions, and knows something needs to be done to stimulate the economy.

So everyone outside Germany has an interest in changing things. And I think [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel has evolved on this, recognizing that an all-austerity approach isn’t going to work. But she’s facing her own election in 2013 and a substantial portion of her party doesn’t want to budge on this. So if I’m correct that she’s evolved, she has a political problem. Hollande’s election might give her some room to maneuver, by building a consensus for more pro-growth policies. Hollande’s election could be a signal of a change in thinking and influence German politics.

BP: But now Sarkozy has attacked Hollande for pledging to renegotiate the euro zone pact. Doesn’t that suggest Sarkozy approves Europe’s current course?

AG: Right, Sarkozy has attacked him on this point, saying that France has signed a treaty, that [Hollande] is undermining the country’s international credibility. But I think, underneath the surface, both recognize that there’s a fundamental structural imbalance in Europe. And the only way to rebalance is for Germany to commit to investing in the South or for a transfer of funds… and that institutional changes need to take place at the European level.

BP: Certainly the German press doesn’t sound thrilled about the prospects of a Hollande victory. If Hollande does win the run-off in May, could that really be the start of a shift in how the euro zone approaches its crisis?

AG: That’s the optimistic reading, although the question is whether Hollande has the leadership capability to do this. Throughout his career he’s been a compromiser, he’s never been one to stake out a strong position among the competing currents within his [Socialist] party. So it’s not certain he’ll be able to carry out whatever tough negotiations are necessary.

BP: Now the other question is that you read lots of newspaper articles about how Hollande’s this socialist who’s going to raise the top tax rate to 75 percent and cause investors to flee the country. Is there anything to this, or is these fears being inflated by Sarkozy’s camp?

AG: Sarkozy has certainly been stoking those fears, the way that in 1981 people were warning that [Francois] Mitterand’s election would lead to Soviet tanks in France. But Hollande comes from a wing of the party that’s quite moderate in many respects. Markets might be rattled by his election, at least briefly — especially if unions expect some gestures from the Socialists in terms of turning back [Sarkozy’s reforms on] retirement and the minimum wage.

But on retirement age, Hollande isn’t likely to do much to change Sarkozy’s reforms. [Hollande has proposed lowering the retirement age from 62 to 60 for a small class of workers.] His camp recognizes that for budgetary reasons they have to keep most of the reforms in place. […] He’s facing a possible further downgrade in France and a rise in borrowing costs. He knows that, and he’ll have to take steps to reassure the markets.

The unions will likely try to put pressure on Hollande soon after the election in order to test his resolve, but as a colleague of mine who was an adviser to Prime Minister Michel Rocard back in the 80s pointed out, there were 100,000 union demonstrators in the streets every fall during that period of Socialist government, and Rocard held firm. In a sense, it’s easier for the Socialists to deal with the unions, because there is a reservoir of trust that doesn’t exist with right-wing governments. So, while there may be demonstrations and even some strikes, the unions are unlikely to push hard enough to cause a real crisis. French unions tend to be cautious anyway, and they have an interest in helping Hollande through a difficult initial patch, although they also have to defend the interests of their members.

BP: So why is Sarkozy likely to lose? Is it the economy?

AG: Economic crises are hard on incumbents everywhere, we’ve seen that in the UK, Italy, Spain, and Greece since the crisis began. But over and above that, there’s been a huge anti-Sarkozy reaction at home. His tough talk and abrasive personality helped him at first but hurt him over time, and he’s made a number of moves that were held against him — there was the turmoil in his personal life, where he got divorced and married a supermodel, that lost him a lot support among conservative Catholic voters. He earned a reputation as the “bling bling” president because of the people he hung out with and the lavish dinners he held. And then he appointed his 23-year old son to run a billion dollar urban development agency. That was seen as a real abuse of his power.

BP: And now what about Marine Le Pen, the right-wing National Front candidate? A while back she was doing surprisingly well in the polls.

AG: A year ago I would’ve said that she was a major threat… there was polling a year ago that she might surpass Sarkozy and capture a huge percentage of the working-class vote. That seems to have subsided. … It suggests that the extreme right has not been increasing in France as rapidly as had been feared, and that’s a significant point that needs to be reported.

Update: The election results are now in and Hollande won the first round, as expected. He’ll face Sarkozy, who came in second, in a run-off on May 6.