It looked almost as if it could have been a wedding when German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy walked into the conference hall of the European Council building in Brussels last Monday. They nodded at each other and exchanged pecks on the cheek, the other heads of state and government moved aside.
The two, of course, were not in Brussels to be betrothed. Rather, they were the main characters at yet another European Union summit. This time, they were seeking support for their fiscal pact, which together they had hammered out in the hopes that it could contribute to saving the EU and its common currency.
Once the pact had received the necessary backing, Merkel was visibly pleased -- and she made no attempt to hide her affinity for Sarkozy. "My political views are well known," she said following the summit. And then came a sentence that had been previously unimaginable for a German chancellor. "Nicolas Sarkozy supported me during my campaign. In the same way, I will now pay back that which he gave me."
The sober chancellor and the peripatetic president have established a pact, the likes of which has never before been seen in the Franco-German relationship. Merkel has decided to openly campaign for her partner in Paris. For Sarkozy, she is discarding the reserve that chancellors have for decades felt proper when it comes to democratic elections outside German borders. When Sarkozy begins stumping, she will be standing next to him on stage -- at least that is the plan.
Sarkozy, for his part, plans to present his partner from across the Rhine as a shining example. The German debt brake, the German social reforms, the German productivity -- France should try to emulate all of it. Last week, during a one-hour interview on television, Sarkozy mentioned the word Germany fully 15 times. Even close party allies feel that Sarkozy's weakness for Germany is becoming an obsession.
Thinking Without Borders?
One could interpret the bond between Merkel and Sarkozy as a new level in the friendship between Berlin and Paris. What is wrong when two leaders merge to form a kind of ruling duo? Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle hammered out the Elysée Treaty, also known as the Friendship Treaty. Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand held hands over the graves of Verdun. And "Merkozy" are now making real what the supporters of a united Europe have long dreamed of: European domestic politics, thinking without borders.
That, at least, is the charitable version of the situation, a point of view which both Berlin and Paris have been seeking to promulgate. "It is a sign of European integration when Chancellor Merkel campaigns with President Sarkozy," says Ruprecht Polenz, a foreign policy specialist with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU).
In truth, however, Merkel and Sarkozy are being driven by desperation. The president would seem to be hopelessly behind his challenger Francois Hollande in surveys. A repeat of the German job miracle in France -- Sarkozy is hoping that such a promise will attract voters.
Merkel, for her part, is horrified at the prospect of a President Hollande. The Socialist is in favor of euro bonds and opposed to the anchoring of a balanced budget amendment -- the so-called "debt brake" -- in the French constitution. Hollande also doesn't think much of Merkel's fiscal pact, which she recently managed to push through in Brussels. Should Sarkozy's re-election bid fail, then Merkel's European strategy could fail as well, the Chancellery fears.
As a result, a kind of secret diplomacy has been underway for months between the CDU headquarters in Berlin and the offices of Sarkozy's UMP party in Paris. Indeed, the CDU is expending a similar amount of energy on the election as it might on an important regional election in Germany.
The decisive link between the two parties is French Agricultural Minister Bruno Le Maire, an expert on Germany within the French government. In recent months, he has traveled to Berlin twice for meetings with CDU General Secretary Hermann Gröhe. Once, he met with Peter Altmaier, the senior CDU politician who is one of Merkel's most important advisors. Le Maire's meetings focused on the overall strategy for Operation Campaign Aid with the UMP deputy general secretary, Hervé Novelli, responsible for the details.
The French visitors explained Sarkozy's campaign strategy in detail. The president wants to appear as a leader who gets things done, as an architect of the efforts to save the European common currency. The French should see him as a man who is Merkel's equal. They are desperate to avoid having him be seen as just another European leader forced to beg Brussels for billions to shore up their dismal budget -- a request which not only infringes on national sovereignty but also on dignity.
But how is that goal to be achieved? Just recently, the rating agency Standard & Poor's withdrew France's triple-A credit rating. Even worse from a French point of view, Germany was allowed to keep its top rating. In addition, the French economy is suffering mightily, making it difficult for Sarkozy to claim that France is in the same league as Germany.
A List of Possible Dates
German and French advisors quickly agreed that, if the numbers aren't quite right, then at least the images should be. That was the origin of the plan to send Merkel to France to have her appear with him on the campaign trail. The chancellor of a booming Germany (until recently at least) should fill Sarkozy's tired campaign with life. That is the idea.
The cooperative campaign kicks off on Monday, with a joint Sarkozy-Merkel television interview to be broadcast on Germany's ZDF and the French station France 2. The Salon Murat inside the Elysée Palace, with its chandeliers and golden pillars, where the interview will be filmed, will lend the occasion its required elegance.
And that's just the beginning. As yet, no concrete dates have been set, but Sarkozy's strategists are in the process of working out the details. When CDU General Secretary Gröhe travelled to Paris for the launch of the UMP campaign just over a week ago, his French colleague Jean-Francois Copé presented him with a list of possible dates.
Merkel is looking forward to joint appearances with the president, Gröhe said during his speech to the UMP delegates to frenetic applause. The next day, the French daily Journal du Dimanche bore the headline: "Merkel Votes for Sarkozy."
The Dangers of Merkel's Strategy
A few years ago, such a headline would have been unthinkable. At the start of his presidency, Sarkozy didn't get on well with the rational, reserved German chancellor, who in turn was irritated by the French president's nervous hyper-activity and his tendency to keep on touching whoever he was speaking to. But then came the euro crisis, and it welded them together. And now that bond is being reinforced by the presence of a common enemy in the form of the Socialist Hollande. He describes himself as a "pragmatic leftist" but his campaign manifesto is so full of expensive promises that even the center-left Social Democrats in Germany have their doubts about him. The SPD helped to raise the German retirement age to 67 while Hollande thinks even 62 is an unacceptable imposition.
Hollande's European policy is causing Merkel particular concern. So far, she has primarily been able to push through her vision of European austerity only because she knows Sarkozy is on her side. Hollande, however, has already stated clearly that he will overturn the fiscal pact, the heart of Merkel's European policy. Merkel's aides are murmuring that Hollande will come to his senses if he gets elected. But that could be wishful thinking. "It is unbelievable if we're told that a newly elected Socialist president shouldn't be permitted to want to change anything about this pact. In that case you may as well tell us not to bother holding an election," says Hollande's campaign manager Pierre Moscovici. And he cites the example of a government leader who managed to get her own way against the rest of Europe, even if Hollande doesn't want to follow this extreme case. Margaret Thatcher, Moscovici, points out, once said: "I want my money back."
Hollande knows of course how Merkel feels about him. The Socialist visited the SPD in Germany in December and said: "We'll win together." Merkel was not amused. But Hollande is shocked at how demonstratively Merkel is now siding with Sarkozy. After all, the Socialist would have liked to adorn his election bid with a visit to the Berlin chancellery. The pale Monsieur Hollande could do with a bit of diplomatic polish. But the Socialists' request for a date have been left unanswered for weeks. "It is up to Ms. Merkel to decide when and if such a meeting could take place," says Moscovici.
According to Jean-Marc Ayrault, Hollande's adviser on relations with Germany, the German ambassador to Paris assured the Socialists that it was customary for a chancellor to meet the most important challenger in a French presidential election. But Merkel's people are looking for a way to reject Hollande's request without causing too much diplomatic damage.
No decision has been taken yet, but Merkel's campaign help for Sarkozy is raising fears that it might damage future German-French relations. How is the chancellor going to work together with a president whom she snubbed during the election campaign?
Merkel's aides aren't even trying to hide their dislike of Hollande. "The conflict between Sarkozy and Hollande is a clash of two fundamental concepts," says CDU General Secretary Gröhe. "Strengthening competitiveness or left-wing redistribution."
Some in the governing coalition are starting to grow uneasy about Merkel's bias. "The German government isn't a party in the French election campaign," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the pro-business Free Democrats said when asked if he too planned to get involved. It was a clear signal that Germany's top diplomat doesn't approve of Merkel's strategy.
No German government leader has ever intervened so openly in a foreign general election, and Merkel herself has always placed a lot of emphasis on neutrality, even if she now says she is acting in her capacity as leader of the CDU.
A Little 'Old Fashioned'
When Barack Obama was running for president and sought permission to hold a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the summer of 2008, Merkel refused and forced him to appear before the less symbolic and less famous Victory Column. One may call that "old-fashioned," she said at the time. But only elected presidents were allowed to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, she added.
When she now says Sarkozy himself helped her in her election campaign, that's only half the truth. When Sarkozy visited her in Berlin in May 2009, four months before her re-election bid in September, the event was hosted by the youth organisations of the CDU and his UMP party -- and wasn't a pure campaign event.
Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl confined his electoral support to subtle gestures. In 1995, he visited the French conservative presidential candidate, Edouard Balladur, during the latter's winter holiday in Chamonix and called him "cher ami."
Kohl once permitted his political friend Francois Mitterrand to use the famous 1984 photo showing the two leaders holding hands in a gesture of reconciliation at the French World War I cemetery in Verdun. But that wasn't for Mitterrand's re-election campaign, it was for a European election.
Perhaps Hollande should silently savor Merkel's intervention because it may end up helping him more than Sarkozy. At the moment, at least, her support appears to be counter-productive. Many French voters are fed up with their president, who is constantly citing Germany as a shining economic example for France.
In the legendary French satirical program "Les Guignols de l'Info," a red-faced puppet with a strong German accent is a firm fixture. It represents Angela Merkel and is introduced as "President of the French Republic," and she always ends her snappy speeches about the lack of French discipline with the exclamation: "Arrbeiit!"
When Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, recently rang Hollande, the conversation quickly turned to Merkel and her planned campaign help for Sarkozy. Asselborn told him not to worry about it. "That's the best thing that could happen to you."
BY PETER MÜLLER, RENÉ PFISTER, MATHIEU VON ROHR and CHRISTOPH SCHULT