New French face, same old euro crisis as Hollande sworn in
(PARIS) - Francois Hollande will be sworn in as leader of the proud French nation Tuesday only to face an immediate reminder of the extent to which its power is constrained by its 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 personal authority as de facto head of state and government.
But, as 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.
Hollande won over 51.6 percent of French voters who expressed a preference on May 6, but 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 Sarkozy's frenetic rule, the plight of youth and the cause of social justice.
"His deepest wish is to be a normal president," his former partner Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children and the Socialists' defeated 2007 candidate, said Sunday.
The swearing-in ceremony will be held in the elegant Elysee Palace, but 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.
After his trip to the Arc de Triomphe he will pay tribute to 19th-century educational reformer Jules Ferry -- father of France's free, secular education system -- and to Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist.
Then it will be down to business, a crash course in high-wire economic diplomacy for a man who has never served in government, more used to backroom Socialist Party infighting than international summitry.
The first order of business will be to nominate a prime minister, probably the safe choice of the Socialists' leader in parliament Jean-Marc Ayrault, although other names are circulating and Hollande has let little slip.
Whoever gets the job will be faced with simultaneously building a cabinet of ministers and starting the party's campaign to win a parliamentary majority in June's legislative election, while Hollande heads for Berlin.
Hollande has ordered an audit of the government's finances, but new EU forecasts suggest he will struggle to meet his goal of cutting the deficit to three percent of GDP by 2013 and balance the books by 2017.
In France, his allies insist the shortfall is the fault of hidden weaknesses in Sarkozy's record, but it weakens Hollande as he implores the chancellor to ease the EU's austere fiscal straitjacket.
Hollande wants to re-negotiate the fiscal pact agreed by his predecessor in order to give EU members more leeway to invest for growth, but Berlin insists recovery will be secure only when deficits are brought under control.
The incoming French 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 Benoit Hamon fumed Sunday. "We want to renegotiate this pact. ... Austerity led Greece into failure."
After Merkel, Hollande might hope for a warmer welcome from US President Barack Obama on Friday at the White House ahead of back-to-back G8 then NATO summits, except for one thing.
After telling his German ally he wants out of her austerity programme, he will have to explain to his new US friend why he wants France's military contingent to make a rapid withdrawal from the Afghan campaign.
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