by Guo Xinyu
PARIS, April 23 (Xinhua) -- As Francois Hollande breezed into the May 6 run-off with an upper hand over the incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany braces for the prospect of a Socialist president in the Elysee.
With polls predicting Hollande will take an easy lead in the run-off in May, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel must prepare to work with a French president who has been vowing to renegotiate the newly-inked fiscal pact and introduce euro bonds, a no-no for the chancellor.
Merkel managed to push through tighter budgetary discipline and her vision of eurozone austerity thanks to the support of Sarkozy. If the incumbent president fails to get reelected, it might be a setback for her European policies.
A FRIEND IN NEED
"Nicolas Sarkozy supported me during my campaign," Merkel said in January after the French president helped her pave the way for the fiscal compact. "In the same way, I will now pay back what he gave me," she added.
The chancellor supporting Sarkozy's reelection bid and thus intervening in France's internal politics is quite telling of Berlin's fear of losing a staunch ally in the French president.
"This is no longer unusual in an age when a pan-European domestic policy is beginning to take shape," German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented recently.
Ruprecht Polenz, a foreign policy specialist with Merkel's Christian Democrats party, interpreted the chancellor's actions as "a sign of European integration."
Sarkozy, for his part, is banking on the German model of governance to counter Hollande's campaign pledges of tax hikes for the rich and wealth distribution. He is hoping the prospect of economic success will bolster voters' support.
The political alliance of the "Merkozy" duo, formed mainly during the two leaders' cooperation in fighting the eurozone debt crisis, is further cemented when facing the common enemy of Hollande, whose European policy is a real concern for the German leadership.
Taking a leaf out of the German book is good for the weakening French economy, with unemployment pushing towards 10 percent and public debt at 90 percent of GDP and still rising. But too much touting of German-style reform can cause a backlash for Sarkozy.
"To push Germany right now in France makes no sense," Arun Kapil, a political scientist at Catholic University in Paris told local media. "Germany doesn't exactly provoke a positive reaction among French people."
Merkel agreed at the beginning of this year to make several joint appearances with Sarkozy ahead of the election.
However, as it became increasingly clear that close ties between the two leaders were counter-productive in opinion poll ratings, Sarkozy distanced himself from Merkel, saying in a radio interview that "the election campaign is a matter for the French people."
As the French election campaign became more anti-EU and protectionist, Sarkozy even crossed the German red line, calling for expansion of the European Central Bank's role in boosting growth.
"The fact that Nicolas Sarkozy needs Mrs Merkel says a lot about his situation," Hollande said during a campaign appearance before the first round of voting.
In order to attract more votes from conservative voters, many of whom voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the first round, Sarkozy even laid out a "Buy European Act" which would oblige the state to use domestically-produced products in public contracts, on the lines of a similar law in the United States.
He also vowed to cut immigration and warned pulling the country out of the Schengen zone. But whether these pledges would draw more voters to his side in the runoff remains uncertain.
Hollande has said he is willing to meet with Merkel. While it is customary for the German chancellor to meet the most important challenger in the presidential election, Merkel still has not decided whether she will meet the Socialist candidate in person.
"I understand that Mrs Merkel supports Mr Sarkozy, given that they're in the same conservative family of parties," Hollande told German magazine Spiegel recently.
"I'm also the candidate who knows that the German-French friendship is indispensable for Europe. And I will never let myself be carried away to making statements that would change it," he added.
Merkel's support for Sarkozy has raised fears at home that it might damage bilateral ties. After all, she has to work with Hollande if he becomes president and rapprochement will take time if he feels he was snubbed during his election campaign.
"The crisis will force the chancellor to work closely with the French president, no matter who wins. But the more openly Merkel snubs Hollande in the campaign, the more time it will likely take (before they form a working relationship)," German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung commented.
However, with public opinion polls putting Hollande well above Sarkozy in the upcoming runoff, the German leadership has resigned itself to a France under Hollande's rule and begun to make tentative contacts with the Socialist Party camp.
The Socialists party has confirmed contacts with the German leadership, though at present only in the form of messages exchanged between advisers.
But as Merkel's Christian Democrats and Hollande's Socialist party belong to two different political camps and represent clashing ideologies, a possible Socialist president will not make life easy for his counterpart from across the Rhine.
Hollande, if elected in May, will decide the future of the currently smooth Franco-German relationship in Europe, and thereby influence how the eurozone works its way out of its paralyzing debt crisis.