Ausgabe 29/2007

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.

Crimping her style: Is French President Nicolas Sarkozy trying to usurp Angela Merkel's leadership role in Europe?

Crimping her style: Is French President Nicolas Sarkozy trying to usurp Angela Merkel's leadership role in Europe?

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.

Angela Merkel und EU-Präsident Jose Manuel Barroso

Angela Merkel und EU-Präsident Jose Manuel Barroso

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.

A man constantly on the run: If Sarkozy were a school kid, he would get diagnosed with hyperactivity.

A man constantly on the run: If Sarkozy were a school kid, he would get diagnosed with hyperactivity.

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.


© DER SPIEGEL 29/2007
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