Why Germany's Election Alarms the French

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Following the reactions of France's political class to the German electoral stalemate, the French plainly see their own malaise reflected back from across the Rhine — and that's a depressing prospect for the main parties of both the left and the right. The French conversation casts CDU leader Angela Merkel as a Teutonic stand-in for Nicolas Sarkozy, France's super-ambitious interior minister who heads the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), yet regularly issues pithy calls for a total "rupture" of the status quo politics of President Jacques Chirac and his current prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, and a more radical free-market agenda. Merkel's slow descent into parity with the Social Democrats, says political scientist Dominique Reynie´, is "bad news for Sarkozy. It turns out he's making the same mistake as Merkel: talking about a 'rupture' in a country that is afraid of it."

The CDU candidate's poor showing also undermines Sarkozy's line that France is out of step with its neighbors in its reticence to embrace market and labor reforms. "He always talks about France as an anomaly," says Reynie´. "The idea is that 'the others' have either done reforms or want to, and are doing better than France as a result. Merkel's lackluster showing makes that idea look fragile� — particularly since it comes after the defeat of the conservative Aznar government in Spain, and just after the Hurricane Katrina debacle appeared, in European eyes, to further dim the appeal of President Bush's free market mantra.

Chirac loyalists hoping to fend off Sarkozy's more militant conservative challenge within the government were quick to take up that comforting analysis. Defense minister Miche´le Alliot-Marie said in a radio interview, "I think the Germans have responded in a way that certainly does not allow the application of a totally liberal model." In other words, back off, Sarkozy, the more moderate tack of the Villepin government is not only what the French people want, but what the Germans apparently favor as well. That means marshalling the power of the state to solve problems like entrenched unemployment rather than reducing its role and unshackling entrepreneurial forces, as Sarkozy (and Merkel) have advocated.

While the Socialists joined the Chiraquiens in rejoicing over Merkel's performance, they also have reason for concern over the happenings on the German left as well. After all, their cousins in Schroeder's SPD would have won hands-down if it weren't for the renegade Left party of Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, with its roots in the old East Germany ruling party. The French Socialists have been here before, of course: Their candidate Lionel Jospin failed to reach the second round of the 2002 presidential elections because so many traditionally Socialist voters opted for stronger tobacco in the form of a plethora of Trotskyite, anti-globalization parties. Despite that debacle, which led to Chirac's broad and — for the left — bitter victory, the potential for the far left is stronger than ever. The proof: An ample majority of Socialists voted no in the referendum on the European Constitution on May 29. While that current still hasn't coalesced under a strong leader and may never do so, the fact that the German far-left garnered almost 10 percent of the vote has to worry French Socialist party leader Francois¸ Hollande. That would seem to confirm that the mainstream socialists cannot win when there's a strong current to the far left.

"The French see these elections as a replay of May 29," says Stephane´ Rozes, one of France's most astute pollsters. "The good showing of the Left Party represents a real problem for reformers, whether that's Dominique Strauss-Kahn among the Socialists or even Villepin on the center-right. The fact is that even in defending the German Social Model, Schroeder lost three points."

In an editorial on Tuesday, Le Monde wrote that "these elections have engendered nothing but losers." The results are ambiguous enough — and France depressed enough — that politicians across the political spectrum here can only find further reason for pessimism. But at least now they can share that mindset with their political alter egos in Germany.