A year ago, their dislike for each other was palpable at meetings and press conferences. Now they behave as if they were inseparable. I will support him whatever he does, Angela Merkel recently told the audience of a French television chain upon announcing her support for Nicolas Sarkozy’s candidacy for President. I admire her, Sarkozy has said more than once, adding that France has a lot to learn from Germany.
What has happened? And what are we to think about this new German-French friendship? Is this the vision that will lead Europe to new shores? A threat to European democratic integration, as several Members of the European Parliament and some intellectuals think? Or, is it simply a public relations whim?
I think the friendship is authentic at the personal level; it is being put at questionable use at the level of domestic politics; and it is perhaps not too bad from the European perspective.
First, the personal level: Both Merkel and Sarkozy share an outsider feeling within the mainstream political class of their parties—Merkel as the well-behaved East-German female disciple of Helmut Kohl, Sarkozy as the Hungarian Greek-Jewish protégé of Jacques Chirac. That probably bonds. So does their complementarity in terms of character: her strength is her stubbornness; he is pompous and charismatic.
Domestically, and both in France and Germany, the friendship has earned mockery as the coining of the term ‘Merkozy’ shows. It is probably not harming Angela Merkel’s reputation, but she is not facing re-election until next year, and is still on solid ground with the voters despite her recent mishap with Christian Wulff, Germany’s Federal President, who had to resign following allegations for corruption.
Things are not as promising for Nicolas Sarkozy in France where he is trailing significantly behind his main contester, the opposition candidate François Hollande of the Socialist Party. His embracement of Merkel and Germany is also not helping him at the polls. His keeping to it, against all odds, so-to-speak, could suggest one of three things:
1. He is authentic and means it seriously that Germany represents a model for French recovery. This is the position he has been adopting in interviews. In this connection, it is only fair to say that France could indeed learn something from Germany, especially in the fields of labor market and social security reform. (Moreover, even if Merkel is sometimes portrayed like the German Iron Lady, her policies have very little to do with those of Margaret Thatcher).
2. He anticipates that his pro-Merkel, pro-Germany position (in conjunction with some other elements like a hard stance on immigration) will earn him votes during the second round of the presidential elections when the votes of both Liberals and supporters of the ‘Front National’ will be up for grabs.
3. He is not really that interested in re-election and is hoping instead to assume some important European post following his retirement from national politics, and for this, Merkel’s support would be paramount.
Sarkozy is a sly politician. Any one of the above three options could be valid, perhaps all three of them are.
As for the European level, here it is important to recall that historically and symbolically, the project of European integration has always hinged on German-French friendship. As a matter of fact, one reason this project got stuck during the last years was the principal disagreement between the two founding Member States about how to advance the Union’s federalization.
This does not mean that other EU partners have no say in all this. They do, which is also why the process of integration is a long and winding road. But perhaps the best proof that at European level Merkozy is having a positive impact is how the duo has embraced Mario Monti’s ideas for Italian reforms. These, unlike the ones advanced till now for Greece, rest on both pillars of sound budget policy and growth, and they are likely to gain more prominence, for the whole of Europe, over the next months.