M&M: Merkel and Macron are Europe’s newest double act

For Merkel, ‘Macron arrived just in time, like Zorro’, says chancellor’s biographer

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron shake hands after a meeting of EU leaders in Berlin. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron shake hands after a meeting of EU leaders in Berlin. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

 

Marion Van Renterghem, the French biographer of Chancellor Angela Merkel and an award-winning journalist, recalls the relief and joy in Berlin when Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election last May. “Everyone congratulated me, in the chancellor’s office, even in Berlin cafes, as if I had something to do with it,” she laughs.

Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the extreme right and left-wing candidates, blame Germany and Europe for France’s problems. Had either won, Germans feared it would have spelled the end of the EU.

Macron flew to Berlin the day after his inauguration. Merkel cares little for appearances but she wore her best pink jacket and more make-up than usual. “Macron’s wife is the same age as Merkel,” Van Renterghem notes. “Merkel must have thought of that.” The dour German leader was radiant that day. “There was something almost tender in the way she greeted Macron.”

Despite their different ages and backgrounds, Merkel and Macron have similarities. Both are “political UFOs” who rose to power by surprise. Both are pragmatic centrists and convinced Europeans who master the minute details of every issue. Van Renterghem suspects Macron was inspired by Merkel’s practice of keeping the media at a distance. 

Because France and Germany form the geographic and economic heart of Europe, their leaders are fated to act in tandem. Nicolas Sarkozy and Merkel were dubbed “Merkozy”. When François Hollande defeated Sarkozy, the Franco-German duo were rechristened “Merkollande”. Merkel’s aides have coined “M&M” for Merkel and Macron.

Humble Merkel

Merkel lives in an ordinary apartment. Her holiday home is a plain suburban house filled with Ikea furniture. “The more I learn about Merkel, the more exasperated I am by the lifestyle of French leaders,” Van Renterghem says. “The French president travels in a motorcade with flashing lights and blaring sirens, blocking Paris traffic. Merkel rides in one of two cars that stop at red lights. She shows it’s possible to be modest and simple without losing authority.”

In 12 years in office, Merkel has known four French presidents. Jacques Chirac treated the new chancellor with gallantry and the sort of paternalism she had known with the German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Chirac always kissed her hand in a Gallic baisemain. At European summits, he fetched sandwiches for her. She sent him a barrel of German beer every year on every birthday. One of the first things Merkel asked of Macron was an update on the ageing former president’s health.

“Between Sarkozy and Hollande, she preferred Chirac and Macron,” a Merkel adviser told Van Renterghem. Sarkozy was Merkel’s most irritating French partner. He mispronounced her first name with a soft “g”, called her husband, Joachim Sauer, “Mr Merkel”, and gave her noisy kisses on both cheeks.

Sarkozy was hyperactive and impulsive; Merkel slow and reflective. “They got on each others’ nerves,” says Van Renterghem. “In the financial crisis, she was always dragging her feet, unwilling to give more to Greece. ” At a 2008 press conference, Sarkozy enraged Merkel by saying, “France acts. Germany reflects.”

Merkel’s hard line on Greek debt angered Barack Obama, too. On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Cannes in 2011, the then US president badgered Merkel to put pressure on the Bundesbank. Her aides watched, stunned, as the chancellor teared up. “You’re telling me to violate the constitution that you [second World War victors] dictated to the German people,” Merkel said.

Merkel and Putin

When Merkel was in university in the former East Germany, Vladimir Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the KGB, also in East Germany. “The German Democratic Republic is a bond between them, between oppressor and oppressed,” Van Renterghem says.

Putin knows that Merkel has a phobia of dogs since she was badly bitten. At a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, he ignored her aides’ request that he keep his black labrador, Koni, out of the room. “I know him and his methods by heart,” Merkel told an adviser. “It’s typical KGB to target someone’s weakness.”

M&M share a distrust of Putin. Macron accused Sputnik and Russia Today, media outlets close to the Kremlin, of slandering him during the campaign. The same media “insidiously supported the extreme right-wing German party AfD,” Van Renterghem writes.

François Hollande was a calm consensus-seeker, like Merkel. Too calm, her aides said. “On the same subject, Hollande could agree with two persons holding opposite views . . . She didn’t always know if he was saying yes or no.”

In the euro zone, France alone has failed to meet the 3 per cent ceiling on budget deficits. Macron promises to comply by the end of the year. The tug of war between French appeals for “solidarity”, or German largesse, and German demands for “responsibility”, meaning compliance with EU rules, continues. Merkel resists calls to increase investment and raise salaries to reduce Germany’s trade surplus. She is wary of Macron’s fervour for greater European integration.

But there is new optimism on both sides. In Macron’s entourage, the main fear about Merkel’s near certain re-election is that the liberal party FDP, which rejects consideration of further German financial support for EU countries, and which wants Greece to leave the euro zone, could end up in Merkel’s next coalition.

Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and her tense relations with Russia and Turkey had isolated Merkel. “Until France got ahold of itself,” Van Renterghem writes. “Emmanuel Macron arrived just in time, like Zorro.”

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