Although leaders and governments in other countries have fallen over the last year because of voter dissatisfaction with austerity, their replacements have not succeeded in changing the direction of Europe's approach to the debt crisis, in part because Merkel and Sarkozy stood firmly together. But a President Hollande, as bland as some of his compatriots think him, would break up that cozy couple.
With public opinion behind him, he has promised to reverse some of Sarkozy's cutbacks. Throwing down the gauntlet to Germany, Hollande also wants to revise the new treaty to cap public spending, which Merkel considers the cornerstone of her crisis-fighting policy.
France has not yet formally ratified the pact. (Neither has Germany, for that matter.) Hollande says that fiscal rigor can't be the be-all and end-all, and insists that Europe come up with an agreement on measures to promote economic growth in suffering countries.
That view is gaining currency across the continent, on the streets and in the corridors of power, so much so that European leaders may cobble together such a deal at a summit next month.
"If they only cut, the economy won't grow. That's obvious," said university student Mariona Cuyas, 18, who took part in a noisy protest in Barcelona last week against Spain's brutal austerity measures. "We need to stimulate the economy, not cut it."
For Brady at the Center for European Reform, time is of the essence. New fiscal compacts and philosophical discussions by leaders and "Eurocrats" are all well and good, but the present reality demands quick action.
"At some point, voters are going to have to step in and say, 'Snap out of this navel-gazing and address the problems here and now,'" he said. "It could be equally destabilizing. But I have faith in democracy to do the right thing at the end of the day."
Special correspondents Anthee Carassava in Athens and Lauren Frayer in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.