It is half of the Franco-German motor that drives the European Union. It has been the swing country in the euro crisis, poised between a prudent north and spendthrift south, and between creditors and debtors. And it is big. If France were the next euro-zone country to get into trouble, the single currency’s very survival would be in doubt.
That is why the likely victory of the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, in France’s presidential election matters so much. In the first round on April 22nd Mr Hollande came only just ahead of the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet he should win the second round on May 6th, because he will hoover up all of the far-left vote that went to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and others and also win a sizeable chunk from the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the centrist François Bayrou.
Mr Sarkozy has a mountain to climb. Many French voters seem viscerally to dislike him. Neither Ms Le Pen (who, disturbingly, did well) nor Mr Bayrou (who, regrettably, did not) is likely to endorse him, as both will gain from his defeat. So, barring a shock, such as an implosion in next week’s televised debate, Mr Hollande can be confident of winning in May, and then of seeing his party triumph in June’s legislative election.
This newspaper endorsed Mr Sarkozy in 2007, when he bravely told French voters that they had no alternative but to change. He was unlucky to be hit by the global economic crisis a year later. He has also chalked up some achievements: softening the Socialists’ 35-hour week, freeing universities, raising the retirement age. Yet Mr Sarkozy’s policies have proved as unpredictable and unreliable as the man himself. The protectionist, anti-immigrant and increasingly anti-European tone he has recently adopted may be meant for National Front voters, but he seems to believe too much of it. For all that, if we had a vote on May 6th, we would give it to Mr Sarkozy—but not on his merits, so much as to keep out Mr Hollande.
With a Socialist president, France would get one big thing right. Mr Hollande opposes the harsh German-enforced fiscal tightening which is strangling the euro zone’s chances of recovery. But he is doing this for the wrong reasons—and he looks likely to get so much else wrong that the prosperity of France (and the euro zone) would be at risk.