Last week on 16-17 March, socialist European leaders – including President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, the leader of the Party of European Socialists Sergei Stanishev and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel – gathered in Paris to support Socialist candidate François Hollande ahead of the presidential elections, with a first round on 22 April and a run-off on 6 May.
Polls give a slight advantage to Hollande, who is likely to be propelled to the run-off together with centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"As President of the European Parliament, I don't have the institutional right, but I have a friend I like a lot […] and wish him all the luck, his name is François Hollande," Schulz said.
'Change starts with you, François'
For his part, PES leader Sergei Stanishev didn't have to resort to diplomacy.
"Change starts with you, François. It is happening now in France and in Europe. Your election is important for the citizens of France and for all of Europe," Stanishev stated.
He further said that since a number of other European nations are to hold elections, the Socialists and Social Democrats are getting ready to re-paint Europe red – "the color of growth, employment, and hope."
Hollande thanked his European colleagues and attacked in his speech the conservative governments of Europe, whom he said were responsible for having brought Europe to an "institutional crisis, if not an existential one".
He then pleaded for the re-negotiation of the "fiscal compact" treaty to tighten budget discipline, recently signed by 25 heads of state and government.
Only Britain and the Czech Republic did not sign the new treaty, under which all other countries in the 27-nation bloc are to write a golden rule on balanced budgets into national constitutions or equivalent laws. They also agreed to automatic correction mechanisms if the rule is breached.
"I say it today even more solemnly: I will renegotiate the budgetary treaty," Hollande said, adding that this document has been signed, but not ratified, which according to him leaves the door open for renegotiation. He pledged to introduce to the treaty provisions concerning "growth, employment and progress".
Campaign gets 'Europeanised'
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have already formally backed Nicolas Sarkozy for re-election as president in 2012 and the meeting of the Socialist leaders was seen as a response to their perceived interference in French elections.
French and German centre-left politicians have stepped up their cooperation in recent time. Martine Aubry, leader of the French Socialist Party (PS) and Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the German Social Democrats (SPD) signed a common declaration last June, on the Financial Transaction Tax, an issue dear to the leftists, which is now among the priorities of EU heads of state and government. FTT was debated in the Assemblée Nationale and Bundestag and was one of the highlights in a speech given by François Hollande in Berlin on 5 December (video).
However, rapprochement has not always been on the agenda of the PS and SPD. “The Franco-German [relationship] was neglected by the two parties at the time of the referendum on the European constitution of 2005,” says Ulrike Guérot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
“But cooperation between the PS and SPD has improved over the past two years,” he stressed.
However, within their respective political structures, this relationship has not been institutionalised and largely depends on the interests of elected officials. In the PS, it is the mark of personalities like Jean-Marc Ayrault or Henri Weber. In Germany, a major player is the former member of the Bundestag Angelika Schwall-Düren, who is bilingual, and is now a minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the largest of German states.
At present the two parties are trying to renew themselves."We always see the same faces," says Germanophile MEP Estelle Grelier (France, S&D). "We need to renew the generations that are enabling the Franco-German relationship," she added.
PS/SPD: Different political DNA
At the European Parliament, the contacts are still informal. The French and German delegations meet once or twice a year.
German Socialist MEP Evelyne Gebhardt was rapporteur for the controversial Bolkestein directive on services which was partly responsible for the French "no" vote against the proposed European constitutional treaty in 2005. As such she was able to see first hand how the social-democratic DNA of the two parties differs.
"I had not expected French socialists to reject by compromise proposal," Gebhardt says.
Facing today controversial austerity policies, the two parties are attempting to elaborate a credible alternative, without being completely aligned. François Hollande, if he is elected, says he will block the ratification of the fiscal compact treaty, already signed by 25 European governments, in order to renegotiate it.
The German social democrats are ready to approve the text, but have posed certain conditions. German parliamentary politics, where individual parties never have a majority alone, tend towards compromise and the SPD does not systematically oppose the German government’s proposals.
The SPD has supported all European agreements that have been brought to a parliamentary vote to meet the crisis that has struck the EU. It is in this logic that the Social Democrats will very likely adopt the European bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).
In contrast, French socialist MPs abstained in a vote to approve the law in the French parliament. “To say yes to solidarity and no to austerity,” said French Socialist MP Jean-Louis Bianco.
The role of the European Central Bank (ECB) in the management of the crisis is also likely to cause trouble between the SPD and the PS. Even if the German Social Democrats are more flexible than German conservatives, the party remains very attached to the independence of the bank in Frankfurt.
It’s why Hollande has been "extraordinarily prudent" in the face of German social democrats on the SPD Congress last December, said Bianco.
Hollande has carefully avoided “saying what we say at all the congresses of the [French] Socialist Party: We need to change the statute of the ECB.”
The French Socialists then cannot count on their German comrades to turn the European Central Bank into a US-style Federal reserve, but an agreement on debt-sharing (Eurobonds) does not seem out of the reach. The differences would mainly be around how soon such debt could be issued.
"For us, we need to go fast. And there, we have a genuine difference," said Bianco. Other elements remain troubling for the French Socialists. In 2009, it is the social democrats allied with Angela Merkel’s conservatives who voted the so-called "golden rule" of balanced budgets into the German constitution.
'Strangers' to one another
These differences can be disorienting. Adolf Kimmel, emeritus professors at the University of Treves and an observer of political life in France and Germany, said that he had the impression that these two parties were "strangers to one another".
"I would not go that far," said Gebhardt, but they still have "much to learn from one another."
The differences between the SPD and PS are not recent. Kimmel said, adding that there had "always been tensions, notably when the SPD took the road of a more right-wing social democracy under Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s".
But also more recently with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s '2010 agenda' of economic reforms: “It was Nicolas Sarkozy who praised these reforms in France, not François Hollande.”
The SPD has unambiguously backed the market economy since the Congress of Bad Godesberg in 1959. In the face of an influential far-left, the French Socialists waited until 2008 to do so. Henrik Utterwedde, deputy-director of the Franco-German Institute of Luwisburg said: "To talk of [moderate] social-democracy, that does not frighten the PS, but rather the French public."