BERLIN — As Greek leaders argue about whether to accept the painful terms that come with another bailout for their country, the two people who control Europe’s purse strings have drawn ever closer together.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have cemented a bond over years of late-night crisis summits and early-morning news conferences, and this week Merkel pledged her friendship — and her campaign support — to her embattled counterpart in Paris.
As European leaders scrub away their borders in the quest for greater economic coordination, political boundaries are fading, too, with national elections reverberating strongly across Europe. Merkel indicated this week that she would campaign for Sarkozy in his race against Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.
“It shows how intertwined relations have become, not only between France and Germany but also in the whole European Union,” said Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a political scientist at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris who studies Franco-German relations. “European affairs are domestic affairs.”
Merkel, making an extended joint appearance with Sarkozy this week, said his policies were the safest for the future of Europe. “I support Nicolas Sarkozy in every manner because we belong to friendly parties, no matter what he does,” Merkel told reporters in Paris on Monday, standing next to the French president and drawing a broad smile from him — and surprised laughter from the audience.
Later, in a joint interview at the Elysee Palace that was broadcast on both German and French public television, Sarkozy returned the love. “Do I have admiration and friendship for Mrs. Merkel?” he asked. “Yes, I have admiration for a woman who is leading 80 million German people during the crisis. Yes, I feel friendship toward her. I’m pleased that she is supporting me.”
For Merkel, helping her neighbor is in her own interest, too. Hollande, who has been leading Sarkozy in polls ahead of an April 22 first-round vote, has vowed to renegotiate the austerity pact that 25 countries agreed to last month and that was a key German condition for continued support of Europe’s bailouts. He also supports fiscal stimulus, social spending and more generous borrowing rules — all antithetical to Merkel’s tightfisted approach.
Though Hollande has asked for an audience in Berlin with the chancellor, he has yet to receive a response, and Merkel demurred Monday when asked whether he would be granted one. “I think we have more important problems to solve,” Merkel said.
The transformation of Merkel and Sarkozy to “Merkozy,” as the pair is popularly known on the continent, has been bumpy, with the reserved Merkel occasionally at odds with the effusive Sarkozy. But their stiffness has softened through frequent meetings over the financial crisis. From a long walk on the beach in Normandy in October 2010 to a Steiff teddy bear that Merkel gave Sarkozy’s newborn daughter a year later, bonds between the two have slowly strengthened.
Now the links appear tight. Last month, Sarkozy unveiled a German-style austerity campaign in his own country, and in a recent television appearance uttered the word “Germany” 15 times in an hour.
“There are only three women in Sarkozy’s life: Carla Bruni, his daughter and Angela Merkel,” Alain Minc, a close adviser to the French president, told German newsmagazine Der Spiegel.
French and German leaders have long eyed each other across the Rhine during election seasons, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to stump for French votes in the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 that committed France to the euro — although many saw that as support for President Francois Mitterrand himself. No postwar leader has gone as far as Merkel in pledging to campaign for a counterpart, experts say.
It remains to be seen whether Merkel’s intervention will actually help Sarkozy win any votes. It could drive French voters on the far left and far right into the arms of euro-skeptic candidates such as National Front leader Marine le Pen, who has also opposed immigrants and Muslims.
Hollande, at least, professes not to be worried.
“That’s a tough job she’s taken on,” Hollande told reporters in Dijon on Monday. “That Nicolas Sarkozy needs Mrs. Merkel speaks volumes about his situation.”