Leading article: The wind of change is blowing through Europe

Six months ago, France and Germany were laggards. Almost overnight, that old certainty is obsolete
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The Independent Online

But it will not be back to business as usual. M. Chirac is one of those politicians who, even at 72, has the image of being larger, and fitter, than life. His illness - and we still do not know how serious it was - carries with it the first intimations of his physical and political mortality. And this revives memories in France of how President Pompidou's last illness was hushed up. It creates a pervasive sense of unease.

M. Chirac's unscheduled absence from the Elysée unleashed an open battle for the succession that is likely to continue for as long as M. Chirac remains in office. Nicolas Sarkozy, the popular minister of the interior, shamelessly renewed his long-term challenge for the presidency. But he has found his match in Dominique de Villepin, the patrician prime minister, whom M. Chirac recently designated as the man he would like to follow him.

Before this week, that contest was two years away. It would be folly now to exclude the possibility of a much earlier transfer of power. And this change, which will bring with it a change of generation, will inevitably bring fundamental changes in policy. M. de Villepin might favour a more gradual and more stylistically Gallic change of emphasis than the more impetuous and outgoing M. Sarkozy would like, but market-orientated pragmatism will be the order of the day to enliven what has become a morose and increasingly diffident nation.

It is pure coincidence, of course, but a tantalising prospect nonetheless, that these first hints of an eventual transition in France coincide with the real and immediate prospect of a change of power in Germany. Although her lead is shrinking by the day, Angela Merkel still looks set to head the largest party in the Bundestag after the election and win the right to form Germany's next government. A shift from Gerhard Schröder's Blairite centre-left coalition to Ms Merkel's centre-right alliance could set in train the sort of radical, free-market reforms which "old Europe" has long resisted.

To the extent that such reforms presage the hoped-for economic revival, a new French government would have little choice but to follow suit. But even if, against expectations, Ms Merkel fails in her bid to become Germany's next chancellor, change is still in prospect. Recent weeks have brought the first signs that the liberalisation of the labour market introduced by Mr Schröder is starting to pay off. If the improvement gathers pace, Germany will be in for more reform along similar lines.

Nor are France and Germany the only countries that face upheaval. Silvio Berlusconi finds himself in ever deeper political trouble over a very old-style banking scandal. Several of the much-lauded "new" European governments are struggling to hold on to power. And in Ukraine, the "orange revolution" that generated so much excitement and hope eight months ago has lost much of its glow.

Even six months ago, it all looked so simple. "Old" Europe languished; "new" Europe thrived, and France and Germany were laggards being chivvied by Britain, among others, to change their ways. Almost overnight, that long-standing certainty is obsolete. The balance in Europe is changing. The watchword should be spoken aloud: "Be prepared!"

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