Attention Nicolas Sarkozy of France: Don't look over your shoulder on election day Sunday.

The political cemetery behind you is crowded.

Indeed, the feisty Frenchman is keenly aware of all the leaders who got the ax from voters fed up with Europe's economic crisis and the austerity remedies that have stung them so acutely since the sovereign debt crisis began in Greece in late 2009.

It has spread far — to Europe's western most extremity in Portugal and north to green Ireland — claiming governments as people see cherished social welfare benefits wiped away, pensions slashed after a lifetime of work and savings evaporate.

"We are seeing real punishment of those governments which were saddled with handling the economic and financial crisis. And France is no exception," said Jorge Crespo, a professor of political science and public administration at Complutense University in Madrid.

"Whatever your political stripe, it is about punishment for how the crisis is being handled."

Overseeing the drive for austerity to reduce debt and cut deficits has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She won re-election in 2009, a month before Greece revealed it had been fudging its deficit figures and the real numbers caused investors to panic.

Her hold on power has remained strong as Germany's economy — Europe's largest — has grown robustly and unemployment stayed low. That's largely because of her skillful stewardship of the economy after the global financial crisis broke out in 2008. Another reason is the labor reforms that her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder — a Socialist — implemented while in office.

After the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers, Merkel cushioned Germany with stimulus spending. It's one of the ironies of the crisis that she is the biggest champion of austerity.

But Crespo said now even Merkel's job is not secure.

"People are disconcerted. They know what they don't want, but they do not know exactly what they want from whatever leaders come to power," Crespo said.


Woolls is AP's Madrid news editor. Jorge Sainz contributed to this report from Madrid.