BRUSSELS (Reuters) - At his first meeting of EU leaders, with the hotly contested issue of shared euro-zone debt top of his discussion list, France's new president made it clear on Wednesday that he intends to stand up to Berlin on European policy.
As Francois Hollande arrived for the summit in Brussels, the Socialist leader told reporters that euro bonds would be up for discussion. Moments later, Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped out of her limousine and said curtly that she did not think such bonds were a good idea or would help to boost growth.
After the summit, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said most member states had supported Hollande's position.
It was an audacious debut for the newly elected French leader who, despite his placid manner next to his often pushy predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, believes firmly that Germany should not have the sole say in pulling Europe out of crisis.
Emboldened by growing support for his pushback against German-led austerity, and mindful that voters are watching ahead of a legislative election on June 17, Hollande even broke with the usual Franco-German pre-summit meeting, instead holding talks with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in Paris.
"The relationship with Germany is very important but I am not keeping other countries at a distance," Hollande told reporters on his train ride to Brussels, another change in style from Sarkozy, who usually travelled in his presidential jet.
"I want France to be heard and supported by other countries. I don't my relationship with Germany to be like an executive board that imposes itself on others."
Just days into his presidency, Hollande met privately with Rajoy before the informal dinner and greeted Merkel along with other EU counterparts with a handshake and a brief chat as he entered the meeting room.
Footage before and after the talks showed the pair distant from each other and Hollande focused on talking to other leaders, who he is keen to give a bigger role in decision-making after two years of a Paris-Berlin two-step dubbed "Merkozy".
"He does not believe in a duopoly. He won't try to replace 'Merkozy' by 'Frangela' or 'Merkollande'. He wants their partnership to be there to serve the rest of Europe," said an aide accompanying Hollande in Brussels.
"He is not in a confrontational mindset. He didn't arrive brandishing a Kalashnikov and saying 'you must accept euro bonds'," the aide said. "It's a different approach."
Sounding at ease and confident, Hollande gave a polished press conference after the talks, which he said had been frank but non-confrontational. He quipped that at least one country had dismissed his euro-bond idea more firmly than Merkel.
Hollande's May 6 election victory has shifted the debate in Europe, with his call for a new emphasis on growth alongside debt-cutting now a rallying cry for other leaders frustrated by Germany's unwavering focus on budget austerity.
He is also mindful of deep resentment in France at the start of the year when many people felt Sarkozy had surrendered too much to Germany and undermined French sovereignty by agreeing on a joint push to give Brussels more sway over national budgets.
The change in the air was tangible on Wednesday.
"I am struck, coming here, to see how much Francois Hollande's election has changed the game. I am not saying it changes everything, but it is changing the climate," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's new Germanophile prime minister, who was in Brussels meeting European Social Democratic politicians.
Hollande and Merkel have similar characters - reserved and unflashy in public and warm and jovial in private. People who know them expect them to get on better than the chancellor did with Sarkozy, whose impulsive character grated on her at times.
Briefing the media after their regular crisis meetings during the crisis, Merkel would at times look strained next to a Sarkozy who was visibly chomping at the bit to make a big announcement to the waiting world.
The less showy Hollande, who was set to drive back to Paris after the talks ended in the early hours of Thursday, revels in a "Mr. Normal" image which chimes with that of Merkel.
"I expect Hollande will have warm relations with Merkel. They are both very calm people, very analytical. They are very similar," said Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, a specialist in Franco-German relations just appointed Europe advisor to Ayrault.
Even if he is keen to challenge Merkel on policy, the appointment of Ayrault, with his fluent German and strong contacts in Berlin, underscores the importance Hollande is placing on building an equal working relationship with Berlin.
But he also wants to ensure France has close ties across Europe's spectrum, and has reached out to Spain's Rajoy in particular. The only frustration Hollande expressed at the summit appeared to be how long it took some of the 27 member states to set out their positions.
"Some can lay out their ideas in a few minutes, others take up a chunk of the evening," he said. "But that's respecting sovereignty. Every country counts and must be heard."
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau