French president’s plane may have been hit by lightning, but there was no spark between him and the German chancellor
It was a dramatic arrival, but arrive François Hollande did. Not even a lightning strike on his plane was enough to stop France’s new president from keeping his date with destiny. As he stepped out of his Mercedes to be greeted by Angela Merkel for the first time on Tuesday evening, “Merkollande” or “Merde” – composite names for the two politicians seen to have Europe’s fate in their hands – was born.
Despite a show of functional smiles and handshakes, their first date began awkwardly. Merkel had to correct Hollande when he tried to cross her path as they inspected German troops. She put her hands on his arm and efficiently shifted him back on to the red carpet. Later they giggled about it, but there was no sign of the “open-armed embrace” that had been promised. Maybe that will come later, although Merkel never did warm to l’art de la bise, the art of kissing introduced to her by Nicolas Sarkozy which helped to earn them the joint moniker “Merkozy”.
The couple could hardly have started off their working relationship on a worse footing. Months before they met, she snubbed Hollande, refusing to receive him during his election campaign, while offering to throw her weight behind that of his rival. Even more crucially, Hollande had based much of his election campaign on rubbishing Merkel’s management of Europe’s crisis, on which she has more or less gambled her political future and from which she insists she will not back down.
But Merkel is nothing if not a pragmatist, and so the two sat down for a working supper which she knew was going to set the tone for all their future negotiations. The menu was diplomatic: rind de bouillon with vegetables and pancake stripes, asparagus with veal schnitzel, followed by strawberries and ice-cream and cheese and grapes, along with a range of German wines.
Berlin officials had worked feverishly behind the scenes to create the best possible impression of harmony before the visit, and tried in vain to downplay its significance.
“This won’t be a decision-making summit, rather an initial, get to know you meeting,” a German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said before the occasion.
But it was clearly far more than that, with two politicians who had never met before coming together to see not only if they could get on, but whether they could work together to solve one of the most seemingly intractable problems Europe has faced since the second world war.
The psychological advantage had appeared to be Hollande’s. He came to Berlin buoyed up by a fresh new mandate to steer Europe away from dogged austerity and towards a greater emphasis on growth. Merkel, in contrast, is not only finding herself increasingly isolated in Europe, but is reeling from a sensational defeat for her conservatives at regional election which may portend the outcome of next year’s federal election. But after seven years in office, her personal popularity ratings could hardly be higher, largely thanks to her management of the Europe crisis. So she was ready to be squared up to.
How much Sarkozy had briefed his successor earlier in the day during their handover at the Élysée Palace about the “strict German”, as she is sometimes referred to in Paris, or “Onshela”, as Sarkozy came to call her, remains a secret between the two. But perhaps he furnished Hollande with useful tips about her fondness for French cheese and wine, which he used to regularly send to the chancellery. Perhaps he offered a joke. Those close to Merkel say the key was that Sarkozy was able to make her laugh. That will be a challenge for Hollande.
But Hollande and Merkel are also more similar than their contacts over the past few months might indicate. Both were grossly underestimated by the bigwigs in their own parties, both are sober, balanced, pragmatic and unpretentious, and champions of irony, which is always good for taking the sting out of an argument. Not since the cold war has personality played such an important role in European politics.
But unlike Merkozy, two leaders who were brought together by a crisis, Merkel and Hollande don’t have the luxury of time. “There is no warming-up phase for them,” said the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The crisis is already upon them.”
Hollande, on the other hand, has to stand true to his convictions and “cannot be weak-kneed”, said French political scientist Pascale Parrineau, if he wants to steer Merkel in a new direction.
Even if they didn’t outwardly show it at Tuesday night’s brief encounter, the Socialist and the Christian Democrat have the expectations of millions of Europeans on their shoulders, and know full well that they will go down in history either as the protectors or the destroyers of the euro, and with it European integration.
That is a sobering thought as growing numbers of European citizens across the continent are showing a new readiness to go to the barricades to vent their anger.