PARIS Things must be getting desperate if Angela Merkel is intervening in French politics to try to save Nicolas Sarkozy from defeat.
The normally cautious German chancellor is taking a big risk by planning campaign appearances in support of the French leader ahead of the April 22 first round of a presidential election, starting with a joint television interview on Monday.
If, as all opinion polls suggest, Socialist challenger Francois Hollande defeats the conservative Sarkozy in a May 6 run-off, Merkel will have to rebuild the Franco-German European leadership duo from scratch with a man she has snubbed.
She had a similarly awkward start with U.S. President Barack Obama after refusing him permission to hold a rally at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate - a Cold War landmark and backdrop for a famous 1987 Ronald Reagan speech - while a presidential candidate.
Merkel aides cite two reasons for her decision to depart from diplomatic convention at Sarkozy's request:
- the need to preserve the close partnership the French and German leaders have developed in managing the euro zone debt crisis, which has earned them the collective nickname "Merkozy", despite differences of temperament and policy;
- alarm at Hollande's anti-market rhetoric and his call to renegotiate a fiscal pact on stricter budget discipline in the euro zone agreed by European leaders last month.
"Hollande's plans endanger the efforts to stabilise the euro," Hermann Groehe, general secretary of Merkel's Christian Democratic CDU.L party, told Reuters on a visit to France.
The Socialist candidate's supporters say his attack on "the world of finance" in a keynote speech has been overblown. He aimed to sharpen his profile and rally the left, but he is not about to lead them to the barricades.
Hollande says he will be firm on reducing France's budget deficit, although he opposes writing a German-inspired "golden rule" on balanced budgets into the constitution. He wants to temper fiscal discipline and sanctions in the new European treaty with a commitment to promoting economic growth and jobs.
Sarkozy's decision to play the "German card" could backfire at a time when France is seen as having lost both economic and political parity with Berlin on his five-year watch, formalised by the loss of Paris' triple-A credit rating last month.
"Germany may be the salvation of France, but certainly not of Nicolas Sarkozy," said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations.
French cartoonists have illustrated cruelly the increasingly unequal relationship. Plantu of Le Monde depicted Merkel as a uniformed matron pushing a battered Sarkozy in a wheelchair.
Liberation daily's Willem drew a burly mother Merkel pulling a little Sarkozy child by the hand. "Ein Problem?" the Merkel figure asks sternly. "Non, non," the tiny Sarkozy stammers.
While mention of the Germans no longer automatically arouses memories of World War Two occupation except among the elderly, voters may not reward the president for holding up Germany as an economic and social model for France.
Sarkozy cited the German example to justify his latest proposals to reduce payroll taxes and raise value added tax VAT.L on consumption instead.
The French left has countered that Germany's export-led boom was built on a decade of declining or stagnant real wages, and a rise in social inequality and low-paid or part-time jobs. German workers are also represented in corporate boardrooms, giving them a stake in decisions, unlike their French counterparts.
Merkel may well be calculating that if Sarkozy is re-elected against the odds, he will owe her a big debt of gratitude, while if Hollande wins, he will have no choice but to court her for a share in European leadership.
The Franco-German relationship has survived several periods of tension over 50 years when a leader changed in one capital or the other, but has always reasserted itself as the only motor capable of driving European integration.
History books dwell on the partnerships between Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, and Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. But there have been many hiccups along the way.
The Germans were horrified when Mitterrand, modern France's only Socialist president, brought Communists into government in 1981 and nationalised swathes of industry in an expansionary economic and social policy that emptied French coffers.
Only after a monetary crisis and two devaluations did Mitterrand change course, forging a close alliance with Kohl based partly on French support for the deployment of U.S. nuclear missiles in Germany to counter Soviet rockets.
It was Kohl and Mitterrand, from opposing political families, who drove the 1992 decision to create a single European currency, fighting off opposition at home to push it through a French referendum and the German parliament.
Since they left the stage, Franco-German ties have been repeatedly strained by unilateral decisions that upset the other partner. Jacques Chirac embarrassed Kohl by reviving French nuclear tests and abolishing conscription in 1995 without consultation.
Gerhard Schroeder's Red-Green coalition irked Chirac by deciding to phase out nuclear power, France's key energy source.
Hollande, a middle-of-the-road disciple of Mitterrand, threatens no such radical departure. He would not, for example, reverse Sarkozy's 2008 decision to return France to NATO's integrated military command.
Indeed, he has told voters that because of the debt crisis, they will have to tighten belts for the first two years before any redistribution of wealth.
He has reached out to Merkel allies on two visits to Berlin in the last two months and said his first visit if elected would be to Germany, although the chancellor has not yet agreed to meet Hollande before polling day.
A "Merkollande" partnership might be cool at the outset, with the Frenchman seeking to balance out German hegemony by widening the decision-making circle, advisers to Hollande say.
"The Franco-German couple is important but you can't run things as two, you must include others like Italy and Spain, and that's what Hollande wants," said an academic who works with him on his Europe policy, asking not to be quoted by name.
"He wants to do things differently," the adviser said. "He wants more ministerial and parliamentary involvement, rather than it being a small club of the presidency and chancellery. He wants more say for the (European) Commission and national parliaments. He wouldn't go back on the 17-nation euro zone meetings but he wants to return legitimacy to EU summits."
Ironically, Merkel took office with similar intentions but came to realise that tight Franco-German cooperation was the only way to get things done fast once the crisis struck.
The chancellor has been exasperated at times by Sarkozy's penchant for sudden initiatives and highly publicised meetings that raise market expectations.
She might find Hollande's calm, cautious manner a welcome change, if her efforts to rescue Sarkozy fail.
(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Emmanuel Jarry, Yann Le Guernigou and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Writing by Paul Taylor; editing by Ron Askew)