x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A new French face, same old euro crisis as Hollande sworn in

New president will soon find his power to run his country is limited by a common currency and close links to debt-ridden neighbours

PARIS // Francois Hollande will be sworn in as leader of the proud French nation tomorrow, only to face an immediate reminder of the extent to which its power is constrained by ties to a debt-wracked Europe.

The Elysee Palace ceremony and associated pomp - an open-topped ride in a classic Citroen DS up the Champs Elysees to the arch that celebrates France's former triumphs - will be followed within hours by a flight to Berlin.

There, in a cautious first encounter, France's new Socialist leader will try to find common ground with Germany's conservative leader, Angela Merkel, despite their widely differing views on how to deal with eurozone deficits.

France is the world's fifth great power, Europe's second-biggest economy and a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN security council. Its president wields enormous authority as de facto head of state and government.

But, as Mr Hollande's right-wing predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy found to his frustration, since its entry into the euro, Paris has had to remain in lockstep with its EU allies - in particular economic powerhouse Germany.

Mr Hollande won over 51.6 per cent of voters who expressed a preference on May 6. However, the seventh president of the Fifth Republic's promise to restart growth will depend largely on his ability to work with allies abroad.

First, however, the 57-year-old career politician wants to begin with a sombre celebration of his campaign themes - a return to "normality" after Mr Sarkozy's frenetic rule, the plight of youth and the cause of social justice.

"His deepest wish is to be a normal president," his ex-partner Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children and the defeated 2007 Socialist candidate, said yesterday.

The swearing-in ceremony in the elegant Elysee Palace will be a relatively simple affair, with no other heads of state invited and neither his children nor those of his partner Valerie Trierweiler present.

Then it will be down to business - a crash course in high-wire economic diplomacy for a man who has never served in government and is more used to back-room Socialist Party infighting.

The first order of business will be to nominate a prime minister. This will probably be the safe choice of the Socialists's leader in parliament Jean-Marc Ayrault, although other names are circulating.

Whoever gets the job will be faced with simultaneously building a cabinet of ministers and starting the party's campaign to win June's legislative election, while Mr Hollande heads for Berlin.

He has ordered an audit of the government's finances but EU forecasts suggest he will struggle to meet his goal of cutting the deficit to three per cent of GDP by 2013 and balance the books by 2017.

In France, his allies insist the shortfall is the fault of hidden weaknesses in Mr Sarkozy's record but it weakens Hollande as he implores the chancellor to ease the EU's austere fiscal straitjacket.

Mr Hollande wants to renegotiate the fiscal pact agreed by his predecessor to give EU members more leeway to invest for growth. However, Berlin insists recovery will be secure only when deficits are brought under control.

The incoming government is confident a compromise can be reached but some here point to the political mayhem in Greece - where voters brought down a government over austerity - and to the problems in Spain and Italy.

"We didn't vote for an EU president called Mrs Merkel who makes sovereign decisions for the rest of us," Socialist spokesman Benoît Hamon said yesterday. "Austerity led Greece into failure."

After Ms Merkel, Hollande might hope for a warmer welcome from US President Barack Obama on Friday at the White House - except that he will have to explain to his new US friend why he wants French troops to make a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.