Lightning, rain buffet Hollande's presidential debut
PARIS May 15 (Reuters) - A mid-air lightning strike forced Francois Hollande's French presidential jet to turn around and land on Tuesday and he was repeatedly drenched to the skin by torrential downpours as freak weather gave him a punishing first day in the job.
Hollande, who paints himself as a man who leads an everyday life, had to change suits twice after he was first soaked by a summer rainstorm while standing in an open-topped car for an inaugural parade in Paris then again a few hours later when the heavens again opened during an outdoor ceremony.
After declaring to reporters, standing in his dripping suit in the Elysee palace courtyard, that he was not scared of rain or anything else, he had to turn back from his maiden foreign trip, to Germany, when lightning struck the presidential jet.
If that were not enough, once Hollande had finally landed, two hours late, in Berlin under sunny skies, dark clouds appeared and yet another suit was doused by drizzle.
The constant drenching became the joke of the day: satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine using it for a punning front-page headline playing on French usage of "soaked" to mean corrupt; a conservative minister in the outgoing government jested that the "lightning bolt" - synonymous in French with love at first sight - must be a symbol for the Socialist's first ever meeting with Paris's key ally, conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The German leader did not go so far, but she did suggest after talks over dinner that his arrival despite the lightning strike might be a good omen for their future cooperation.
"His jet was hit a lightning and had to turn back," a presidential source said. "He had to take another plane."
The source would not say whether the decision to return to Paris and change the French-built Dassault Falcon 7X jet for another aircraft reflected unusual caution or normal protocol.
Lightning strikes on planes cannot cause electrocution as there is no contact with the ground. Aviation experts say the danger is limited from most strikes, and the worst that normally happens is that passengers see a brief flash and feel a jolt.
That said, lightning strikes or mid-air storm damage have contributed to the deaths of 486 people since 1945, even though the number of incidents as a proportion of total flights is extremely low, according to the Flight Safety Foundation.
With any strike, the risk of damage to radar or electronics sometimes makes turning back mid-flight a wise precaution.
The change of planes meant Hollande arrived late for his first meeting with Merkel and talks that were already set to be stormy as he launches his challenge to the German leader's pan-European austerity drive while the two must plot a course to save the euro currency from turbulence caused by the collapse of efforts to form a government in Greece earlier in the day.
After what appeared to be three changes of suit in one day, Hollande looked weary as he arrived at the Chancellery in Berlin.
The rainstorms in Paris alternated with bouts of sunshine, following weeks of changeable weather.
While outgoing conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy and his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni were able to stroll away from the Elysee during a bright interval, dark skies blotted out the sun and pelting rain hit Hollande when he drove out shortly after in an open-topped Citroen for a victory lap of the city.
He was rained on again when he went to the Tuileries Gardens next to the Louvre Museum for an outdoor ceremony to commemorate 19th-century statesman Jules Ferry, who promoted secularism.
Televised images of Hollande with water droplets obscuring his spectacles and rain pouring off his lapels were already causing online mirth before the lightning strike became the event of the day.
Twitter posts joked that Hollande was being put through biblical tests or that the omens were bad for him.
Television later showed a relaxed looking Sarkozy out jogging in a suburban Paris park, the Bois de Boulogne.
It was the second time in a year that the business jet flown by France's head of state has been involved in a safety scare at the outset of an important international meeting.
In May 2011, European authorities grounded all Falcon 7X jets aircraft hours after Sarkozy had landed at a Group of Eight summit on the northern French coast, forcing officials to call in a replacement for the president's return trip.
The European Aviation Safety Agency ordered the temporary suspension after a Falcon 7X in use elsewhere encountered a problem that affected stability during descent.
The jet is built by Dassault Aviation, which also makes France's Rafale and Mirage warplanes. Introduced in 2007, it is designed to fly 11,000 km with eight passengers.
France took delivery in 2010 of the first of two Falcon 7X aircraft for presidential use, the first one being quickly dubbed "Carla One" by French media after Sarkozy's first lady.
The planes were reported to have cost 50 million euros ($63.87 million) each, including modifications for comfort and communications links.