Paris's Provocation Sarkozy Wrestles with Merkel for European Dominance

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is challenging German Chancellor Angela Merkel for leadership of Europe. But she’s hoping to slow down France’s hyperactive new leader to ensure German influence on the Continent -- while avoiding an open confrontation between Paris and Berlin.

There are plenty of ways to reach the pinnacle of politics. The classic option -- being well thought of and having convincing arguments -- is seldom successful. Other methods can often prove more effective: outmaneuver your opponent by either buying him, threatening him or blackmailing him politically.

The political showdown is another entertaining option for the public. Only one politician leaves the battlefield as victor after it’s all over and the winner makes sure everyone is aware of his political virility by throwing his weight around.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel prefers a mixture of patience, restraint and attrition. She suffers the macho rituals of her predominately male counterparts without complaint. She simply ignores provocations where possible and, if necessary, interjects with mild sarcasm to nudge her negotiating partner in the right direction.

Political observers will have an opportunity this Monday to see which method wins out, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosts Merkel in the southern French city Toulouse. Sarkozy is looking for a showdown. Only eight weeks in office, he’s angling to strip Merkel of her title as Europe’s top leader. Sarkozy is a man who has built his political career on successful high-stakes duels against his opponents. It has enabled the son of a Hungarian immigrant to fight his way to the uppermost echelons of France’s establishment.

The two leaders have known each other for years, but in Toulouse they meet at the bargaining table for the first time. The summit will set the tone for their working relationship -- and the Franco-German partnership -- well into the future. Both are aware that the European Union can't function if Paris and Berlin are at odds.

But at the moment the relationship is deeply strained. The new administration in Paris is doing its utmost to provoke Berlin. France discussed the decision to put forward former French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the EU’s candidate to head the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C. with all of its important partners except Germany. Outraged German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also been waiting days for a call from his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner, who recently suggested replacing long-established EU policies for the Middle East with his own initiative for the region.

Sarkozy is looking for a fight wherever he can. He's pushing for more influence  for the French state at aerospace company EADS, which controls Toulouse-based airplane maker Airbus. He has also called into question  the independence of the European Central Bank, blocked EU negotiations with Turkey and undermined the European position on Kosovo’s status.

'Sparks Are Flying'

A showdown appears unavoidable. The France experts in Berlin have long since dug trenches, mentally, to fend off the French attacks. “Sparks are flying,” says a Merkel advisor in the Chancellery. Diplomats at the Foreign Ministry quietly echo that assessment. Apparently everything is going according to Sarkozy's plan.

But Merkel doesn’t want to duel with Sarkozy. She'd rather avoid confrontation and harness Sarkozy’s seemingly unbridled energy. She has made it known that anyone who wants to reform the rather stagnant European Union should have a free hand in Brussels. France’s new president could be just the man to shake things up.

That might sound clever, but it may also obscure Merkel’s true intentions. She wants to clarify Berlin’s position on central Franco-German disputes, like the future of Airbus. Sarkozy can't expect old-fashioned German compliance. At the same time, Merkel won't humor challenges to her leading role in Europe -- especially not from the new French president.

The Running Man

But the Frenchman has proved to be a formidable opponent. In reference to France’s high-speed train the TGV, Sarkozy in Paris is now known as PGV -- Président à la grande vitesse. The high-speed president might live amid the golden pomp of the Élysée Palace on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore like his predecessors, but that’s where the similarities with Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac end.

If he were still a schoolboy, France’s new leader would be diagnosed as hyperactive. Sarkozy zooms from one appearance to another. Hardly a day goes by without a photo op, a sound bite for TV or a press release. Even his athletic attempts to stay in shape by jogging are used for political spin -- the president is constantly on the move.

In Strasbourg he celebrated a “grand gathering on the topic of Europe.” In the nearby town Epinal he announced his planned “institutional reforms” at a “republican meeting.” Around France’s national holiday on July 14, he had a half dozen appointments stretching from Bretagne to Paris, as if he were still campaigning for election.

Sarkozy himself had predicted nothing less, saying as a candidate that he wanted to be “a president who governs” and he promised: “I will not allow anyone to get in the way of reforms. What I’ve said I will do. I will be inexhaustible.”

The members of his cabinet can interpret those sentiments as a threat. Sarkozy operates as a virtual multi-minister, usurping the work of several portfolios. Whether it's lower tax rates for France’s wealthier citizens, more take-home pay for working overtime, or essentially getting rid of inheritance taxes, the president has involved himself in all the gritty details.

Ruffling Feathers, in Europe and Abroad

His domestic restlessness carries over into foreign policy. Hardly back from the last EU summit in Brussels -- which he naturally sold as a personal success -- he hosted US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a dozen colleagues for dinner in the Élysée Palace. Shortly thereafter, he declared the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan a presidential priority. “Silence kills,” he said, determined to avoid being accused of not speaking out on the matter.

The following day he ordered his underlings in Brussels to halt negotiations with Turkey on economic and monetary integration with the EU. Then, just before US President George Bush greeted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Maine, Sarkozy suggested solving Kosovo’s status with another round of negotiations between Serbs and the enclave’s ethnic Albanians. It was as if he'd tossed out the proposal, casually, in case Russian and American diplomats weren't sure how to proceed.

When Rodrigo de Rato, the Spanish head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), unexpectedly decided to resign, Sarkozy quickly suggested to Luxembourg’s premier Jean-Claude Juncker that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Frenchman, could be his replacement. The fact that Frenchmen already topped three of the world’s most important financial outfits -- the European Central Bank, the World Trade Organization and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development -- didn’t bother the president. Nor did it faze him that Strauss-Kahn seemed reluctant at first. It took only four days to push his man through.

Sarkozy's frenetic style has also stirred up relations with two former French colonies, Algeria and Morocco. The two countries have strained ties because of the conflict over Western Sahara . Sarkozy tried to visit both on a single trip. But Morocco -- insulted when Sarkozy flew to Algeria first -- promptly withdrew its invitation.

A Rift over EADS

The Germans feel somewhat harried by the French leader. The government in Berlin has flagged several economic and foreign policy issues where huge conflicts with the French could develop. In particular, Sarkozy’s intentions regarding EADS  are worrying the Germans. Paris wants the European aerospace company to streamline its leadership structure. Berlin is now smugly pointing out that it was the French that torpedoed a similar suggestion by EADS’ large German shareholder DaimlerChrysler a year ago.

In preparatory talks ahead of the meeting in Toulouse, Berlin signaled its willingness to reach a compromise with the French. The current Franco-German leadership could be scrapped, said the Germans, assuming the German Thomas Enders -- who is disliked in France -- remains as the sole chairman. Sarkozy swallowed that personnel decision, as expected, on Monday -- making the power-politics scorecard all even so far.

But in another area the German side doesn’t plan to yield a single inch. Sarkozy is pushing to allow the French government to acquire -- at least temporarily -- more than 15 percent of the company. A current shareholder pact forbids this and, if it’s up to the Germans, that limitation will stay in place.

Tinkering with the ECB

Merkel and Sarkozy may also clash on economic policy. Last week the euro reached an all-time high of $1.38  -- putting French exporters under more pressure than their German counterparts, which are considered more competitive. And so, perhaps predictably, Sarkozy has called for more political influence on a European Central Bank (which is meant to be independent) to help weaken the surging euro against the US dollar.

Merkel dismissed this suggestion in a TV interview last Tuesday: “I don’t think very much of that at all. I won’t allow that to happen and neither will the entire government.” A day earlier, EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels had already rejected Sarkozy’s proposal. But no one in Berlin believes that French attacks on the ECB’s independence are done and buried. The Germans think Sarkozy will launch further salvos.

The new French government’s foreign policy initiatives also irritate Berlin. Sarkozy’s announcement that he aims to present an “alternative” to EU membership for Turkey is considered an open threat. “The EU would be well advised to stick meticulously to its agreement to pursue the negotiation process with Turkey,” warns the German Christian Democratic Union foreign policy expert Ruprecht Polenz.

A 'Highly Dubious' Mideast Proposal

The Germans are also annoyed by an unusual Middle East initiative from France’s new foreign minister. At a meeting with several southeastern European EU nations two weeks ago in Slovenia, Bernard Kouchner pulled a draft letter from his briefcase. The two-page missive addressed to “Dear Tony” -- former UK Prime Minister Blair, and new Middle East envoy -- spelled out an about-face for European policy in the region. It said the radical Palestinian Islamist group Hamas should not be provoked, and that Israel needed to make concessions to help jump-start the peace process.

Had all 27 EU foreign ministers been there, the French initiative would have been quashed by London or Berlin. But the surprised ministers in the Slovenian town Portorož obediently backed Kouchner’s idea. Officials in both the Chancellery and Foreign Ministry in Berlin were furious. The whole thing was “highly dubious” and was good only “for the trash can,” according to one high-ranking diplomat.

“Kouchner and Sarkozy complement each other in fantastic fashion,” says one person close to German Foreign Minister Steinmeier mockingly.

Nerves in Berlin are so frayed at the moment that even the surprise trip Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia made to Libya last week caused a commotion. Élysée Palace announced she was visiting the five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for supposedly infecting 426 children with AIDS in her capacity as a “mother.” Foreign Minister Steinmeier has been working doggedly behind the scenes to secure the release of the women, who are widely considered to be victims of a show trial. Officials in Berlin assumed that Sarkozy was trying to commandeer the whole process -- and take credit for it -- now that the nurses might be on the verge of being pardoned.

But one leading German foreign policy expert has advised officials in Berlin to remain calm in the storm of Sarkozy’s provocations. Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer has pointed out that Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac took office in 1995 in far more explosive fashion -- with a nuclear bomb test in the South Pacific.

Ralf Beste, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Christian Reiermann, Stefan Simons

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