- - Monday, April 16, 2012

BERLIN — The eurozone’s conservative leaders are bracing themselves as France, an economic giant, prepares to elect a Socialist amid their efforts to impose austerity measures to stanch Europe’s fiscal crisis.

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande’s election would “create a strong shock and a lot of turmoil in Brussels and in Berlin,” said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, a political scientist at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

President Nicolas Sarkozy holds a slight lead over Mr. Hollande in polls for the first round of voting Sunday, but the Socialist has commanded a significant lead over the conservative incumbent for the second round on May 6.

Mr. Hollande has promised to create public-sector jobs, increase taxes on the rich and “dominate” the financial sector.

That message has enthused French voters and caused concern beyond the borders.

“What many people [outside France] think but won’t say is that the French people are crazy,” Mr. Moreau-Defarges said, adding that the prevailing mood in Europe is against high public spending.

The eurozone is one of the biggest trading partners of the U.S., and disruptions in its economy have significant effects on the U.S. economy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her support behind Mr. Sarkozy’s re-election bid from the start, raising eyebrows with her offer to make joint public appearances with him.

Iain Begg, of the London School of Economics’ European Institute, described the move as “exceptional.”

Austerity vs. growth

“It is the political norm not to interfere in other countries’ elections,” Mr. Begg said. “It’s an indication of how apprehensive [Mrs. Merkel] is about a Hollande victory.”

That concern emerges from a fundamental divide between Germany’s doctrine of austerity, which has won the European argument and forced debt-ridden countries to tighten their belts, and Mr. Hollande’s commitment to boosting growth.

“There is a debate about the balance between growth and austerity,” said Ben Tonra, professor of international relations at University College Dublin. “The election of a Socialist French government would certainly and necessarily rebalance that discussion in a direction targeted at more growth and less austerity.”

Mr. Sarkozy politely refused Mrs. Merkel’s offer to hold his hand on the campaign trail, but the chancellor continued to show where her loyalties lie. She declined to meet the Socialist candidate - a snub repeated by British Prime Minister David Cameron and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hollande has threatened to shake things up in Europe if the French electorate gives him the chance. He has announced plans to renegotiate the fiscal treaty that will impose budgetary discipline from Brussels on the eurozone’s 25 member states that signed to it last month.

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