Next year, French and German voters will go to the polls to select their parliaments and leaders. The current frontrunners are François Fillon, the former French prime minister, who emerged from primaries over the weekend with a strong mandate to be the candidate for the center-right, and long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who recently announced that she will seek a fourth term.
Both would face daunting tasks. They would be in charge of steering the European Union through Brexit while continuing to face down Russian assertiveness. Absent the United Kingdom and with an unpredictable new administration in the United States, they will also be in charge of managing the EU-U.S. relationship and of trying to save the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Other items on their agendas include Turkey’s authoritarian drift and the possible reunification of Cyprus.
However important the foreign policy challenges, though, it is on domestic issues that voters will select their leader. France suffers from a structurally sluggish economy and high unemployment, and each election hinges on never-fulfilled promises to fix these problems. Dramatic terrorist attacks have also sensitized voters to security issues and to the imperfect assimilation of a large community of Muslim immigrants. By contrast, Germany is victim of its own economic success, which has made it the destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers and left a major segment of the German electorate angry and alienated. Those trends have propelled xenophobic parties such as France’s National Front and the National Democratic Party of Germany forward in the political debate, both of which are likely to play a role in next year’s elections.
Against those extremes, Fillon and Merkel embody the values of a moderate center-right. Their core constituencies are socially conservative and European, to the extent that Europe is a space for Christian values. Economically liberal, Gerhard Schröder, who was the country’s chancellor until 2005 and was an architect of pro-growth reform. The combination of industrial specialization and global competitiveness worked well for Germany. Unemployment has been on a long-term downward trend, and the country weathered the 2008 economic crisis well, which allowed Merkel to capitalize on economic success throughout her tenure.
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