Two leaders clinging on to mutually beneficial relationship

Tue, Feb 7, 2012, 00:00

Sarkozy sees Merkel as a vital campaign ally, while a win for Hollande would concern Berlin, write RUADHÁN Mac CORMAICand DEREK SCALLY

IT WAS the eighth Franco-German summit in eight months, but yesterday’s was the first where the euro zone’s travails had a rival for everyone’s attention. Here, the critical relationship between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel – minutely parsed and pored over for the past five years – itself took centre stage.

With Sarkozy facing a difficult election in three months, Merkel confirmed she would support his campaign against the socialist François Hollande.

Smiling cheerfully at a press conference at the Élysée Palace, the two leaders talked up their strong relationship and pledged to align their economies to create a “zone of stability” at the heart of Europe.

Yesterday’s summit was ostensibly devoted to this convergence process, but in reality it was as much about French politics. Sarkozy has made it his guiding credo that France must catch up with its neighbour by emulating its economic model.

He lauds Germany’s growth, low unemployment and competitiveness to sell each of his own reforms – so much so that in a major TV interview last week, he mentioned Germany 15 times.

“Germany has had huge successes. That doesn’t make us jealous – it inspires us,” he said.

Sarkozy and Merkel have not always been so close. Temperamentally they are opposites. Sarkozy came to power with little interest in Germany, and “we had to learn how to work with each other”, he acknowledged yesterday.

But Sarkozy now sees Merkel as his most vital ally. By recruiting her for his campaign, he hopes to burnish his statesman’s credentials, to remind voters of his leadership role in the euro zone crisis, and to draw a contrast with Hollande, who has not served in government.

Last night’s joint Franco- German television interview – reminiscent of an appearance by Helmut Kohl alongside François Mitterrand to boost the latter’s Maastricht treaty campaign in 1992 – was Merkel’s first stop on the campaign trail.

How all of this will play for Sarkozy is up for debate. Merkel’s success in winning French concessions on budgetary control has created some resentment in France. Opponents on Sarkozy’s right and left flanks portray him as Merkel’s poodle; even one of Hollande’s party colleagues has likened the chancellor to Bismarck.

The Merkel-as-election-tool gambit could backfire if voters cannot be persuaded that the German model is the one to follow, or if Merkel’s involvement begins to look like unwelcome interference.

Across the Rhine, meanwhile, Sarkozy’s “Allemagne” overtures are making the Germans twitchy.

Flattery is now mixed with fear that Sarkozy’s obsession with Germany could exhaust voters and divide public opinion long before the president gets around to the actual business of reform.

In public, Merkel has dismissed Hollande’s campaign promises, from eurobonds to an austerity roll-back. Last week, she said her “party political feelings are known” and praised the “tradition of continuity” on EU policy.

“Europe couldn’t function if, after every change of government, everything already agreed was called into question,” she said.

In the tight web of EU and national law, however, German officials worry Hollande’s domestic proposals could scare markets and pull apart the euro zone reform tapestry. There is also a practical concern in Berlin that Europe cannot afford the lost year that usually accompanies personnel changes in the Élysée or Chancellery.

“For Merkel, a Hollande win would mean losing – that all the effort to win over Sarkozy in the last years would fall away. It would be a big step back,” says Dr Claire Demesmay, Franco- German analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite the talk of Berlin’s new dominance in European politics, and German fingerprints on the new fiscal treaty, Berlin officials are quick to point out French achievements in the euro zone crisis, from Greek aid to the European Financial Stability Facility. No one in Berlin takes for granted their reliance on France to help sell austerity medicine in southern Europe.

“Sarkozy is seen as more credible on Greece because of that, and because he has similar problems at home,” says Demesmay. “This credibility cannot be underestimated for Germany for pressing on with reform.”

And so Merkel faces a dilemma: as her political advisers discuss dates for campaign appearances with Sarkozy, her government advisers wonder how they can get her out of the traditional Berlin audience with Sarkozy’s challenger. “Nothing has been decided,” she replied when asked last night if Hollande would be invited to Berlin.