They may seem an odd couple, but Angela Merkel is working wonders for the struggling president.
Back in 2007, a grinning Nicolas Sarkozy was inaugurated at the Élysée under the watchful gaze of his statuesque second wife, Cecilia, wrapped in Prada oyster satin. Last Monday, coming into the final straight of his 2012 re-election campaign, badly lagging in the polls with less than 80 days to run, a sobered, silver-templed Sarkozy appeared on television in the exact same place next to another woman of his age, whom he similarly expects to buttress his popularity among the French voters.
There the similarities end: Angela Merkel, the doughty German chancellor, has never attained anything approaching glamour, even when sporting a vertiginous décolletage at the opera to the vocal dismay of her compatriots (and more than a few snarky giggles from the French).
In many ways, this was the point. Nicolas Sarkozy – once so certain that the French wanted a glittering, Kennedy-style First Family that he piled tin-eared mistake upon mistake, for which he still hasn’t been forgiven by the electorate – now aims to project a realistic image. It’s too late, he feels, for the French to start loving him. Not that they were ever going to; Sarkozy has never stopped viewing himself as the ultimate outsider: too foreign, too short, unclubbable, not an ENA graduate (the government school from which most politicians, mandarins and bosses originate), not enough enamoured of style over substance – the French elites’ besetting sin.
Now he presents himself as the competent helmsman in a crisis, the man who fought for the euro (and prevented two out of three ratings agencies from downgrading France); the champion of tough but ultimately effective policies, ready to do what it takes to keep the country prosperous, instead of inflating the deficit sky-high by (among other spending measures) hiring 60,000 new civil servants, as the Socialist candidate, François Hollande, promises in his platform.
Mrs Merkel is his last trump card – whether Sarkozy is whisking her out for a prime-time television interview, or for two rallies in the campaign he hasn’t formally declared yet (but is already planning). Poll after poll by the Élysée spin teams show that the French rate the German chancellor far higher than their own man. They see her as competent, serious, powerful. This is the new kind of arm-candy the Sarkozy of 2012 is aiming for.
The president once believed that the French admired his 2008 speed-wooing of Carla Bruni, who fast became the third Mme Sarkozy. He now thinks winning Angela Merkel over will show how much he has matured. After all, if the financial crisis has solidified their partnership to the extent of coining the “Merkozy” tag for their duet, it wasn’t always thus.
It is no secret that early on, Merkel could barely stand to be in the same room as the French president. He immediately took to kissing her on both cheeks – not as bad as George W Bush’s neck-and-shoulders massage at the 2006 St Petersburg G8, but still – to grabbing her arm and calling her “my dear Angela”. But this was far from making up for decisions such as the French-British military treaty, for calling her “La Boche” (The Kraut) behind her back, or joking about her longstanding battle with her weight (“she tells you she’s on this new diet, then she helps herself to cheese twice”).
Until the appointment to the Cabinet of Bruno Le Maire, the agriculture minister, Sarkozy’s inner circle did not feature one German-speaker. “Would you spend your holidays in Germany?” the president once asked visitors in bewildered tones, a jibe that was swiftly leaked to the German press. And as late as last year, Sarkozy berated Merkel’s “pusillanimity”, saying her failure to commit early on to shoring up Greece let the debt crisis spiral out of control, “all this to keep her own voters happy”.
Merkel, for her part, looked on Sarkozy so uncomprehendingly that her staff, many of whom have actually studied in France, prepared a “cultural package” for her. It notoriously included several movies starring the great French comic actor Louis de Funès, who specialised in playing short, outrageously unfair, irate, aggressive characters. “She had to have every joke explained to her!” a weary Merkel aide told one of his French buddies – who promptly leaked it to the French press.
Yet a grudging respect has developed between these two mismatched characters. Merkel has made no secret of her growing respect for Sarkozy’s dogged determination during the marathon Euro-summits of the past year, even when she sometimes disagreed. She has publicly said that Germany should model its welfare net and social policies on France’s. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has been praising Germany’s handling of the economic crisis, willingness to tackle salary inflation, and, of course, its robustly positive trade balance.
Nicolas Sarkozy counts as a major personal victory the fact that Angela Merkel is willing to support him in his campaign for re-election, even at the risk of criticism at home. Long past are the days when Élysée press officers briefed on the “non-inevitability” of the French-German axis, and explained that France and Britain had at least as many reasons to foster a new entente cordiale. When push comes to shove, even beyond hard economic realities, the old De Gaulle-Adenauer alliance wins. It was really a foregone conclusion, after Giscard d’Estaing-Schmidt, Mitterrand-Kohl and Chirac-Schröeder. After all, how else would France get to (co)lead Europe, and Germany’s power be seen as acceptable?