Things were, as they say, touch and go there for a while between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy—way too much “touch” for the German chancellor’s taste (aides say Sarkozy loves greeting her with his country’s customary cuddle and double-kiss, largely because he knows she detests it), not near enough “go” for the French president (“France is acting, while Germany is only thinking about it,” he exploded a couple of years ago, as Europe slid into the economic abyss without, as Sarkozy saw it, appropriate intervention from Germany).
But since the eurozone crisis took hold some months ago—all that bad Greek debt threatening to contaminate weaker European economies, like Spain and Italy—Merkel and Sarkozy have entered into an uneasy but powerful rapprochement. What else could they do? Germany and, to a lesser extent, France, are the economic superpowers who must either prop Europe up or watch it collapse. And so Sarkozy and Merkel now embody France and Germany’s long-time roles—the “dual engine of European integration”: they cozy up, meet endlessly, often into the wee hours, kibbitz on the horn, and even tag-team haranguing phone calls to recalcitrant colleagues like Silvio Berlusconi (whose unkind words about Merkel are much too salty to reproduce here). As Sarkozy put it: “It is vital that, in the face of this unprecedented crisis, France and Germany speak with one voice and form a common policy.” They are so united a front—the Maginot Line erased, a terrible booboo—that, as with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (and Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck before them), observers truncate the pair into a single, sentient being: Merkozy. At times their joint efforts elicit the rhetoric of erotica—for example, when Joachim Fels, chief of global economics at Morgan Stanley, called their suggestion that Greece might leave the eurozone “taboo,” as though monetary policy and forbidden love are closely aligned concepts.
And yet they are very different people. Sarkozy comes from Hungarian aristocracy; Merkel’s mother taught Latin in Hamburg. He is a natty dresser; she gets into trouble showing her cleavage (“Weapons of Mass Distraction,” the Daily Mail called her breasts after she showed up at the Oslo Opera House in a low-cut number some years ago). Her spouse is a quantum chemist who adores Wagner; his is a former model who has slept with Mick Jagger.
No wonder the relationship suffered for a while. She admitted privately that his lurching comportment reminded her of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character. He’s prone to calling her “La Boche”—French for “Kraut.” Even now his discomfort can occasionally bubble to the surface—for instance when, under his breath, he recently told other European leaders that Merkel “says she is on a diet and then helps herself to a second helping of cheese.” The comment is said to have stung the German chancellor. Yet they carry on.
So, faced with the latest iteration of the recurring Greek crisis, Sarkozy rushed to Germany for talks—even as his wife, Carla Bruni, was giving birth to the couple’s first child. Merkel gave him a German teddy bear for their new daughter, Giulia, and even claimed to sympathize with him over France’s narrow loss to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final (Sarkozy reportedly slipped out of a summit with European leaders to watch the game).
His vigorous approach to the crisis has given him a boost in the polls. Yet he remains in the weaker position: with an election in six months, Sarkozy is still worryingly unpopular and must preserve France’s AAA credit rating, a delicate task. Merkel, as tough at home as she is abroad, needs him only so that her suggestions don’t look too much like diktats. The sad truth is their public love affair masks what those close to the two leaders describe as a persistent animosity.