Inside the Élysée 'Sarkozy Has Learned to Like Angela Merkel'
The EU's leadership duo of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy has become increasingly important over the course of the euro crisis. In a SPIEGEL interview, a close adviser to Sarkozy provides an inside look at Europe's most crucial relationship.
Alain Minc was born in Paris to Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father, Joseph Minkowski, was a dentist and a member of the Communist Party. After completing his studies at the elite universities Sciences Po and the École Nationale d'Administration, Minc began a singular career as an intellectual, political adviser and businessman. Although he has no official role, he is part of a close group of advisers to Nicolas Sarkozy.
Minc has written more than two dozen books and sat on the board of various companies, and he plays a central role in elite Parisian circles. His consulting firm AM Conseil consists of a secretary, a chauffeur and Minc himself. In 2010, the firm has a turnover of over 7.8 million ($10.2 million). Several weeks ago, Minc became the head of the French highway operator SANEF.
For this interview, Minc received SPIEGEL in his grand offices on Avenue George V in Paris's 8th arrondissement. On the walls hang two large portraits of Samuel Beckett by the photographer Richard Avedon. In a corner stands a bust of Joseph Stalin, a gift from his friend, the billionaire François Pinault.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Minc, let's start with the important things. Does French President Nicolas Sarkozy really like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or does he just pretend to?
Minc: I think he has learned to like her. At the beginning, you couldn't have imagined two more disparate people. She comes from the north, while he comes from the south. She's a scientist, and he's a lawyer. She proceeds methodically, while he acts intuitively. She's a woman, and he's a man. She leads an impossible coalition, while he is the king of France.
SPIEGEL: She is very controlled, while he isn't.
Minc: He's learning to control himself. I think both of them have come a long way: from necessity to complicity, and from there to, as Nicolas Sarkozy tells me, real affection. You know, there are only three women in Sarkozy's life: Carla Bruni, his daughter and Angela Merkel.
SPIEGEL: Was there a moment when this change became noticeable?
Minc: Sarkozy's view of the chancellor changed the more he came to understand Germany. I could really sense this change. At the beginning he said: "She doesn't want to." Now he says: "She can't." That's an enormous difference. Most politicians who come to power in this monarchic French system don't understand the German system. Even when they have a close adviser like me, who tries to explain it to them, they don't know it's the most democratic country in Europe.
SPIEGEL: And now Sarkozy understands the Germans?
Minc: He is now an expert on the poll results for the (business-friendly) Free Democratic Party, on votes in the Bundesrat (the upper house of the German parliament), and on speculations about different possible German governing coalitions. Should he not be reelected, you could hire him for your Berlin bureau.
SPIEGEL: Were you the one who explained Germany to him?
Minc: Sarkozy's team has changed considerably. Unlike the early days, he is now surrounded by people who know Germany well. Take, for example, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Sarkozy's chief of staff, Xavier Musca. He has become a specialist.
SPIEGEL: So the key to a better relationship with Merkel was instruction in German civics?
Minc: The relationship improved to the extent that the crisis made it necessary, but it was also the result of an evolution on the part of Germany and the chancellor. The Germans have realized that they have the most to lose if the euro zone collapses, and so they have accepted the economic government that was a French concern. And France has accepted that it has to budget according to German criteria. That's the deal.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, they repeatedly disagree on many issues.
Minc: But the two have made it a formidable habit to commit themselves to come to an understanding. When they say, we will present joint proposals on the 29th of the month, it means they disagree on everything, but they are beginning a process that obligates them to agree in the end. And this works.
SPIEGEL: As of Friday, Jan. 13, when the Standard & Poor's rating agency deprived France of its AAA rating, the balance has shifted even more in the Germans' direction.
Minc: No, it's just that an imbalance is becoming visible that existed before. When Sarkozy discussed things with Merkel, he always knew that he is economically inferior to her, but also that he is politically stronger than she is, due to the French political system. I have a different problem with this decision, which I find perverse, not as much in relation to France as to Italy. These rating agencies behave like pyromaniac firemen: At precisely the moment when the Italian markets are normalizing and the Monti administration is doing remarkable work, they cut off his legs.
SPIEGEL: You yourself said some time ago that the AAA rating was a matter of national pride, and that it would decide Sarkozy's fate. The coveted rating is now gone. What about Sarkozy?
Minc: It was necessary to dramatize a little at the time to get two austerity plans approved. And yes, it is unpleasant, it's annoying and it's a difficult political situation. But we have to distinguish between the effects now and the impact on the elections in three months. Effective immediately, Sarkozy will present himself as the one who tells people what is needed to improve our competitiveness. His opponents will have to react to that. This puts them in a difficult position, especially the Socialist candidate, François Hollande.
SPIEGEL: You praise the harmony between Sarkozy and Merkel, but the impression remains that the two leaders cannot solve Europe's crisis.
Minc: Europe has made a great deal of progress in the last two years, but while doing a crabwalk, which is why it looks far from elegant. Nevertheless, the European system functions more effectively than Washington. The 27 member states approved the first aid package for Greece within a month.
SPIEGEL: But the major differences of opinion are the problem: France wants the European Central Bank to intervene more actively in the markets, something that the Germans oppose.
Minc: I think the two resolved this problem very intelligently, namely by agreeing that the ECB is independent. On the day it intervenes, the Germans can say: We don't like this, but they're independent. And the bank will intervene if it becomes necessary. Have you ever heard of an institution that destroys itself? The ECB will do everything possible to ensure that the euro survives and that it survives.
SPIEGEL: How difficult is it for France to accept that Germany has recently been setting the tone in Europe?
Minc: At the ECB, at least, neither the Germans nor the French are in charge. But there are two negotiating tables in Europe: The first one is for economic issues, while military, strategic and diplomatic questions are discussed at the second one. Germany is the senior partner at the first table, but it doesn't even want to be present at the second one, as (the case of) Libya has shown. I think that results in a balanced relationship.
- Part 1: 'Sarkozy Has Learned to Like Angela Merkel'
- Part 2: 'The Crisis Has Helped Sarkozy to Become Adult'