Hollande began his first day in office in the ornate Elysee Palace in Paris but ended it in Europe’s main sanctum of austerity, the modernist concrete chancellery in Berlin, underscoring the importance of the debate at hand. Adding extra drama to an already tense evening, Hollande’s jet from Paris had to turn back after it was struck by lightning shortly after takeoff. He arrived in Berlin on another plane more than an hour late for the meeting with Merkel, their first.
Hollande presented himself as the leader of a new vanguard in Europe’s battle against recession, favoring policies that stimulate growth through investment over the solutions pushed by Merkel, who holds that excessive debt is the root of Europe’s troubles. He sought to walk a middle line between his insistence during a year-long campaign on the need for growth measures and Germany’s equally strong focus on bringing down government deficits and debts.
The partnership between Merkel and the new French president will help determine Europe’s path at a crucial juncture, as Greece teeters on the verge of leaving the euro, Spain struggles to cut its spending and economists worry about the broader effects of euro-area troubles on the global economy. Merkel and Hollande will meet President Obama at Camp David later this week at the Group of Eight summit, where he is expected to press them on their response plans.
Greece was one of the top priorities of Merkel and Hollande’s meeting Tuesday night, where they greeted each other on a red carpet with a handshake, not the cheek kisses favored by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. At the news conference after their meeting, Hollande took notes as Merkel spoke. Merkel remained impassive as Hollande spoke frankly of their differences, smiling only occasionally, including when he mentioned the lightning that had delayed him. Then they retreated for dinner and more discussion.
“I want to put growth at the heart of our debate,” Hollande said. “It’s true that the word was in the budget treaty, but it was not really emphasized.”
Earlier in the day, after being sworn in at the Elysee Palace, Hollande said in a speech that he would “propose a new pact to our partners that will join the necessary reduction of public debts with an indispensable stimulation of the economy.”
Both Merkel and Hollande said they wanted Greece to remain in the euro zone. Greek politicians abandoned attempts Tuesday to form a government and instead opted for new elections, jeopardizing the troubled country’s ability to meet its financial commitments. But the French and German leaders suggested that they were willing to give Greece some time to work out its troubles, with Merkel striking a more conciliatory note than she has in recent days.