* Hollande favours earlier exit from Afghanistan
* Would try to renegotiate euro zone fiscal pact
* Socialists share Sarkozy line on Arab Spring, Syria
* Activist questions Hollande's guts in conflict
By John Irish
PARIS, Feb 24 (Reuters) - France's Socialists have said they will pull troops out of Afghanistan this year if they win a presidential election, distancing themselves a little from the close relationship Nicolas Sarkozy has built with the United States.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has also said he aims to renegotiate a European fiscal discipline treaty, irking German Chancellor Angela Merkel for whom stricter budget control is the essential lesson of the euro zone's debt crisis.
With Hollande consistently leading Sarkozy in opinion polls, France may well have a Socialist head of state setting foreign policy for the first time since 1995.
But despite those two symbolic gestures, history suggests French policy would change more in style than substance if the left recaptures the Elysee palace on May 6.
Just days after the runoff, NATO allies and G8 leaders meet in Chicago in talks likely to reveal the tone of Paris' new international discourse.
"I see our relationship as a result of friendly relations between allies and partners," Hollande said in a recent interview with English-language media.
"France will remain a reliable ally of the United States. Nevertheless, ally does not mean aligned."
Hollande, 57, has no ministerial experience and is little known abroad, but he has tried to present himself as a more stable leader than the hyperactive Sarkozy.
He worked with the last left-wing president Francois Mitterand and the last Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, under whose government the decision to join the fight against the Afghan Taliban was made.
Hollande's pledge to bring troops home from Afghanistan by end 2012, a year earlier than planned by NATO, is popular at home. More than 80 percent of voters want an early withdrawal, even if defence ministry officials believe it unrealistic.
"Without doubt, what will be at the heart of foreign policy is the desire to be autonomous, meaning that France only decides in its national interests and defends them as it feels right," said Henri Nallet, a former Socialist Party foreign affairs spokesman and justice minister under Mitterand.
Under Jospin in 1997-2002, the Socialists put more emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy alongside traditional geopolitical interests.
But with conservative President Jacques Chirac retaining most sway over external relations, Jospin appointed Hubert Vedrine as foreign minister, a pragmatic old school realist who opposed U.S. hegemony and was sceptical about the feasibility a common European foreign policy.
History may repeat itself. Hollande has stood firm on a pledge to renegotiate the fiscal pact, demanded by Germany in return for its participation with euro zone bailouts, to include a greater push on stimulating growth.
Merkel cited that as one reason for openly backing Sarkozy despite their own sometimes tense relationship.
But most analysts think Hollande would ultimately have to tone down his demands for the good of the Franco-German relationship. His aides point to his europhile background.
Hollande's pro-European campaign manager, Pierre Moscovici, who was European affairs minister under Jospin, and Germanophile Jean-Marc Ayrault are tipped as possible foreign ministers.
"Hollande would be more respectful of European institutions, procedures and organisations," said a French diplomat who declined to be named because he serves the current government.
"He will be more attentive to the role of the European Commission and parliament. The European machinery will be respected, which Sarkozy has not done."
For all the talk of moving away from Sarkozy's line, there appears to be a broad consensus on foreign policy that has been cemented with the Arab Spring.
Sarkozy dropped former dictators he once supported, calling for human rights and democracy to prevail. He demonstrated in Libya and Ivory Coast that he was ready to intervene militarily if necessary to support democracy or prevent massacres.
His policy has restored Paris' international clout, although France has lost ground to more economically dynamic Germany in Europe. Most foreign powers, from Berlin to London, Washington, Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi, are discreetly backing Sarkozy, French political analysts believe.
Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, dispatched by Hollande to make contact with several foreign governments, cut short a visit to Beijing on Wednesday after failing to meet any senior Chinese leader, French media reported.
The Socialists supported key Sarkozy decisions such as the intervention in Libya and, like the current government, want to give Islamist movements sweeping elections across the Arab world time to make good on democratic promises.
Bernard-Henri Levy, a left-wing intellectual and catalyst for Sarkozy's decision to back Libya's rebels in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, is not convinced Hollande would act as decisively.
He lauded Sarkozy for his quick decision-making. Asked if he believed Hollande had the moral strength to take his country to war, he told Le Parisien daily: "It's difficult to say. But if you want a straight answer, I'd say probably not."
A first test could come quickly over Syria.
Hollande has endorsed Sarkozy's stance on Syria even if a recent poll showed that 59 percent of Socialists wanted to go further, favouring a U.N. military intervention to end Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on his opponents.
"All the candidates who are seeking the vote are taking the same position of firmness to say ... we are ready to support the Syrian opposition, all of us," he said in a radio interview.
"I don't dispute the position of French diplomacy at this point, which is doing what it can: supporting the Arab League which going is in the right direction when it asks for U.N. peacekeepers to come to Syria."
Hollande has also said he wants to avoid military confrontation with Iran at all costs over its nuclear programme.
While Sarkozy has publicly called for everything to be done to avoid conflict with Tehran, he has been in the lead in pressing tougher sanctions against Iran and made clear that France would defend Israel, were it to be threatened.
Diplomats said Sarkozy has been the most pro-Israel of French presidents, but even he has grown impatient with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigence over the peace process with the Palestinians.
Alain Juppe, who took over the foreign ministry a year ago and has been credited with curbing the president's impulsiveness and realigning foreign policy, says the difference between the two parties' approach was minimal.
"There was a debate in the (Socialist-led) Senate last week which I took part in and after two-and-a-half hours I can't tell you any more on what their policy would be because it's pretty much the same on all subjects other than Afghanistan," he said.
The Afghan U-turn may raise doubts about the Socialists' commitment to NATO since they opposed Sarkozy's 2008 decision to rejoin the U.S.-led alliance's integrated military command, from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France in 1966.
Hollande's supporters dispute Sarkozy's claim that full NATO integration has helped establish a European defence system.
"We will keep our place (in the NATO command)," said Jean-Yves Le Drian, a friend of Hollande's for 30 years and a possible future defence minister. "We wouldn't have done it, but we aren't going to unravel everything."
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two candidates is style. Hollande has promised to move away from Sarkozy's brash and at times