In one of the elaborate prime-time TV interviews with selected interrogators that are a staple of French presidential politics, Nicolas Sarkozy tonight put his fate in the hands of Angela Merkel. He announced a modest increase in, basically, the country’s GST — to kick in after April’s presidential election — to pay for reductions in business taxes to stimulate employment. That was a key feature of Merkel’s economic policy, designed to make it cheaper for employers to hire. He waved his hands a lot and alluded, in vaguer terms, to much tougher reforms implemented by Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, in 2004.
But that wasn’t even the most extraordinary news in German-French relations this weekend, not even close. No, the most extraordinary news is that Merkel will campaign actively in France for Sarkozy’s re-election, going so far as to attend campaign rallies at his side.
This news comes courtesy of the director-general of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, Hermann Gröhe, who addressed Sarkozy’s UMP party this weekend and who does not seem to be a shy fellow. He decried French Socialist candiate François Hollande’s “dusty ideas” and declared, “Mr. Hollande, none of your vague declarations offers solutions to the urgent problems of our time!”
Pause here to consider what would happen if a sitting Democratic National Committee chairman had come to Canada last spring to announce Barack Obama’s participation in the coming election at Michael Ignatieff’s side. Or Jack Layton’s. Maybe he’d have flipped a coin. Anyway, you get the point.
Anyway, Gröhe’s intervention appears to have an element of tit-for-tat to it, because Hollande was in Berlin in December to tell the German Socialists, “Wir gewinnen zusammen,” “We will win together.”
There are a few things going on here. First, a genuine belief among the Germans that, while Sarkozy can be an inconstant and sometimes boneheaded partner, he is at least sometimes interested in running an economy the way Schröder and Merkel have done in succession. Second, an understanding that if Merkel and Sarkozy do not hang together they will most assuredly hang separately. It has been a cold season for incumbent European governments seeking re-election. Merkel is popular at home but she cannot weigh in the European balance without an ally. She’s hardly alone — she gets on well with Poland’s Donald Tusk, for instance — but Poland doesn’t carry a fraction the weight in Europe that France does.
The best story here, however, is the complex and maddening personal relationship between Sarkozy and Merkel. I dearly hope a top political reporter in one of the two countries is writing a book about it. They are opposites in so many ways. He is a loudmouth and a magpie. She makes boring a virtue. He courts the press and pouts over its slights; she is notoriously inaccessible to reporters. Only last autumn he told a boorish joke about her that made instant headlines (“She says she’s on a diet… then helps herself to more cheese”).
Their nations’ fates are so intertwined they cannot live without each other. In a touching gesture toward that historic truth, he flew to Berlin to visit her on the very day of his inauguration in 2007. They speak daily on the phone, rarely go a few weeks without meeting. He has trailed consistently in the polls, and if he wins this spring, he will owe her even more than he already does. The whole thing fascinates me.