What France's Presidential Race Means for the U.S. and the World

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The coming election could help steer the Afghan war, the global economy, and the course of European integration or disintegration.

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Campaign posters for President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and challenger Francois Hollande, left. Reuters

France is preparing for a presidential vote that has potentially major consequences for the eurozone, European integration, and transatlantic relations. The two main contenders--incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy from the center-right Union for a Popular Movement and Francois Hollande of the center-left Socialist Party--are not expected to garner 50 percent of the vote on April 22, making a runoff round likely on May 6.

Opinion surveys have given Hollande a consistent edge, although the gap has been closing as the vote draws near. Many French voters are ready for a respite from Sarkozy, whom they view as having failed to improve economic conditions and as a mercurial and unpredictable leader. Unemployment stands at close to 10 percent, and growth is anemic. Earlier this year, the U.S.-based rating agency Standard and Poor's stripped France of its AAA credit rating in a wave of downgrades, signaling that European states were not taking sufficient action to address systemic problems in the eurozone.

Nonetheless, Sarkozy has of late been making a comeback; he is a talented and energetic campaigner, especially in comparison with Hollande's bland style. And, as across much of Europe, the fortunes of the right are being strengthened by fear about immigration and the socioeconomic intrusions of globalization.

In France, as in many other EU member states, there is considerably less ideological distance between the mainstream center-right and center-left parties than there is in the United States. Whereas Democrats and Republicans have become ideologically polarized since the Cold War's end, mainstream European parties have tended to converge toward the center. Partly as a consequence, smaller, more extremist parties have been faring well. In France, Marine Le Pen on the hard right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left are threatening to drain votes from both Sarkozy and Hollande.

Reassessing French Role in NATO?

Despite the ideological convergence of the main parties, the outcome of the election is likely to have a significant impact on both foreign and domestic policy. Hollande has pledged to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012. (France currently has some 3,600 troops in Afghanistan.) His campaign has also hinted that he might reconsider Sarkozy's 2007 decision to rejoin NATO's integrated command structure, a move that was opposed by the Socialists.

Although Sarkozy has arguably been France's most Atlanticist and pro-American leader since World War II, he also wants to expedite the drawdown from Afghanistan, calling for a full exit of French troops by the end of 2013.

Whoever wins the election, the next French president will be pressed hard to stay in lockstep with his NATO allies and adhere to a withdrawal timetable agreed upon at the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago. And although Hollande has hinted that he might distance France from NATO, he is unlikely to undo the closer relationship with the alliance that has emerged during Sarkozy's watch.

Moreover, France's efforts to guide Europe's response to the Arab Spring and its leading role in NATO's operation in Libya have helped satisfy France's yearning for a high profile on matters of foreign policy. And with the United States downsizing its presence in Europe and pivoting to East Asia, many Europeans worry about too little American power, not too much.

Anti-EU Sentiments

When it comes to the European Union and its ongoing financial crisis, both candidates have, for tactical reasons, been tapping into growing anti-EU sentiment among the public. Sarkozy has raised the prospect of tightening borders and reevaluating existing arrangements for the free flow of people among member states. He also threatened unilateral trade barriers to combat what he sees as unfair global competition on public procurement--a "buy-European" initiative of sorts.

Meanwhile, Hollande has indicated that he intends to renegotiate the EU's new fiscal pact, insisting that the deal should include more provisions to stimulate growth. He has also called for tariffs on imports from countries that do not meet EU standards on safety, labor, and the environment.

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Charles A. Kupchan is Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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