Francois Hollande is widely expected to defeat Nicolas Sarkozy in the runoff election next month; speculation is already rampant about a possible “end to austerity” as Hollande has called openly for the renegotiation of the “Merkozy” pact. But Sarkozy, contributor of the last three letters to that pact, doesn’t differ materially from Hollande in his views of what he himself agreed to. Listen to Arthur Goldhammer:

[T]he defining characteristic of this election is that the primary cleavage has not been between right and left, but between the first and second tier candidates. In the top tier, there’s Sarkozy and Hollande, with around 30 percent each. Then in the next tier, there’s [Jean-Luc] Melenchon on the extreme left and [Marine] Le Pen on the extreme right.

The top tier favors some version of adaptation to the global economy, they want to enable the E.U. to survive and to improve France’s competitiveness in the world. To them, the biggest issue is what to do about the euro crisis, although curiously they’ve had very little discussion of that. The second-tier candidates want to resist the forces of globalization. So in France, about 55 to 60 percent of voters are in favor of adaptation, but there’s about 30 percent voting to resist.

[Emphasis mine]

Hollande and Sarkozy are establishment candidates. They differ in personality, in which interest groups they can take for granted and which will be hostile to them, and at the margins they differ in policy priorities. But they are both establishment French politicians. They agree much more than they disagree. They are both absolutely committed to the survival of the EU. They are also both in favor of the EU remaining a “union of states” (as opposed to evolving in a federal direction, with more sovereignty ceded to a central government directly accountable to a European electorate). And, within the context of those two positions, they would like to see EU policy evolve in a direction more friendly to the French – which, in the current context, means being more accommodative monetarily and/or more explicit about backstopping the debt of member states.

Those preferences are listed in the order in which, I believe, Sarkozy holds them. And Sarkozy’s agreement with Merkel reflects that policy priority list: no formal cession of additional sovereignty, but on the other hand the concession that there must be austerity.

Hollande may, at the margins, care more about spurring growth. But that would require caring less about something else. That something else is either preserving the EU, or preserving French sovereignty. And Hollande is not going to risk the unraveling of the EU itself.

I wouldn’t be totally shocked if Hollande were willing to cede more to Germany in terms of giving formal control to Brussels to set economic policy priorities in France, if, in exchange, Germany would accept a more formal guarantee that the ECB would backstop debt issued by member governments. Whether or not Merkel would take that deal, her opposition has already indicated that it would.

But that’s not at all the same thing as “forcing” Merkel or the ECB to adopt a more accommodationist policy. That’s not the way negotiations work. You offer something. In exchange, you might get something.

If he isn’t prepared to offer meaningful concessions on the structure of the EU, then I don’t see why Germany would agree to renegotiate. In which case, we get a lot of posturing and paralysis. A lot of articles about how the EU itself is on the brink of collapse. Which will prompt a lot of reassurance from Hollande that breaking up the EU is the last thing he wants, or would allow to happen.

Those are the practical possibilities. The election might mean more progress or less, depending on what Hollande is willing to offer. But it doesn’t promise a dramatic change in direction. The center of gravity for power in Europe remains where it has been.