BERLIN May 15 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.
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
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
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
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".