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Will French Election Mark A Reversal Of Austerity?

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The possibility that French President Nicolas Sarkozy may lose the presidential election Sunday is making waves across Europe. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are the architects of Europe's new fiscal austerity pact.

But the man likely to replace Sarkozy has other ideas.

Socialist candidate Francois Hollande — who is favored in opinion polls by several percentage points — says Europe cannot emerge from the crisis based on austerity alone.

Hollande is calling for a rethink, to foster growth strategies. And many across Europe welcome the change a new French president might bring.

This year's presidential campaign spawned a huge anti-capitalist backlash. On May Day, the traditional workers holiday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Paris to denounce the world of finance — the bankers, traders and profit-seekers who they say have ruined regular, hard-working people.

In a catchy phrase that rhymes in French, protesters chanted, "There's plenty of money for the people, you'll find it in the CEOs' pockets."

Proposing A New Direction

This mood was reflected across Europe in similar demonstrations.

Many Europeans are also angry about austerity measures squeezing the working class from Athens to Lisbon. After months of painful cuts with nothing to show, many say they feel the path set out by Merkel and Sarkozy, often referred to as Merkozy, is the wrong one.

Gwenael Braz, 30, carried a Greek flag during the Paris march. On his T-shirt the word Merkozy had a giant X through it. Braz says the people of Greece and other countries have suffered from their austerity, and French voters will change that on Sunday.

"When you vote as a French, you have more power within Europe than when you vote as a Greek," he says. "We have to change the Merkozy things. We can put Sarkozy out, a Greek cannot."

In a contentious presidential debate Wednesday night, Hollande accused Sarkozy of selling out French interests to German demands for austerity. Hollande said he will push to re-negotiate the austerity pact to include proposals to boost growth and job creation.

"My obligation, if I become president, is to give another direction to Europe than the one that is being forced upon us today," he said.

Hollande went on to say that he has noticed a change of mindset in Europe since he began talking about growth. Even though Spain, the Netherlands and Italy have conservative governments, they're all talking about a different approach now, Hollande said.

Weighing A Europe-Wide Growth Strategy

Analysts say opposition to the Merkozy austerity plan is growing across Europe, and many now view a possible Hollande election as a way to shift the dynamics.

"It's something that in Italy is felt very, very deeply," says Beppe Severgnini, a financial columnist with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. "Someone who thinks that growth is more important than austerity and can join forces to tell Merkel that it's not enough to say cut, cut, cut, and we really need to grow."

Matthieu Pigasse, chief executive of Lazard Financial Advisory in France, says the change is not just political.

"As the political discourse changes in Europe, we are also seeing the perception of the financial markets evolve. The markets now want to see a growth-based strategy adopted," says Pigasse, who is also advising the Greek government on how to tackle its financial woes.

But Tomasz Michalski, a professor at HEC, one of France's top business schools, says he doesn't believe a Europe-wide growth strategy can work.

"The reasons for the current malaise in different countries are completely different. So it's not clear that having a growth pact will address all the problems of all the countries at the same time," he says. "And basically a lot of countries want these growth policies to avoid painful reforms."

The austerity pact pushed through by Merkozy still has to be ratified by parliaments in many countries, including Germany and France. Sunday's French presidential runoff may determine which course Europe will follow.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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