By Paul Taylor, Reuters
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 runoff, 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 stabilize the euro,” Hermann Groehe, general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democratic (CDU) 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, formalized 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 II 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) on consumption instead.