Hollande makes nervous debut in capital of austerity

BERLIN Tue May 15, 2012 5:50pm EDT

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BERLIN May 15 (Reuters) - France's new president, Francois Hollande, looked understandably nervous on Tuesday at his first meeting with Angela Merkel, as the world looked for signs that Europe's new power duo can overcome political differences to resolve the euro crisis.

The German chancellor tactfully guided her guest through the military honours in Berlin and whisked him off for talks that had been ominously delayed when lightning struck his plane.

But while both spoke of their determination to keep up the Franco-German cooperation that flourished under Hollande's conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, it seemed from their body language that they will have their work cut out.

First fumbling in his pocket for pen and paper to take notes as the centre-right chancellor spoke at their news conference, the Socialist president, sworn in only that morning, repeatedly used hands and arms to stress how reasonable his arguments were.

Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader for the past six years, simply shrugged and smiled at reporters when her guest explained why he wanted to tamper with her fiscal pact, agreed by 25 European states, to make it more growth-oriented.

Asked if she had any fears about France's new president, Merkel laughed it off, saying: "I don't get afraid very often as fear is not a good counsellor in politics."

Merkel and Sarkozy were so different in character that aides thought they would never get along: she, a physicist from former East Germany known as "Mutti" (Mum), in baggy trouser suits, an intensely private home life and a taste for Wagner opera.

Sarkozy, by contrast, was a hyperactive leader married to singer and supermodel Carla Bruni, a man with such flashy tastes that his critics dubbed him "President Bling Bling".

But the two conservatives saw eye-to-eye on the euro crisis to such an extent that media commentators lumped them together as a single entity - "Merkozy" - and all it took was a conspiratorial smile between them in Brussels last year to signal that Silvio Berlusconi's days as leader of the euro zone's third economy, Italy, were numbered.

BRIDGING DIFFERENCES

The new Franco-German leadership only had 60 minutes to get to know each other before speaking to the world's media, but there seemed to be none of the spark of those Merkozy meetings.

Unlike Merkel, who is already thinking about a third term, Hollande is a newcomer to global politics who trotted out worthy cliches about their "common duty" to overcome their differences.

When Merkel said that, when their interpreters were not translating for them, they had swapped a few words with each other in English, Hollande said they had spoken "the universal language" of politics. That drew a thin smile from the chancellor.

Aides hope similarities in the two leaders' characters will help them bridge their political differences.

Hollande, 57, depicted himself as "Mr Normal" during the election campaign against Sarkozy, whom Merkel publicly supported. He spoke of wanting to continue doing the family shopping as head of state and his partner hopes to remain a working mother.

Merkel, also 57, tries to project a homely image but refuses to discuss her private life. She rarely appears in public with her media-shy husband, a chemistry professor.

Dubbed the "Swabian Housewife" by some in a nod to the thrifty natives of southwest Germany, she might approve of Hollande's austere vow to take a 30-percent cut in presidential pay.

A compromise in Europe's growth-versus-austerity debate may be made easier by the fact that both Merkel and Hollande make up for in pragmatism what they both may lack in charisma.

But the big question may not be whether they can work together to save the euro: in that, they have little choice. More pressing for some reporters covering their talks was what handy nickname could replace Merkozy to signify Europe's new power couple. The smart money is on "Merkollande".

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