24th Oct 2016

Merkel and Sarkozy: The end of the affair?

She needed him to soften the impression that Germany alone is leading Europe. He needed her to give the impression France is still, despite its economic difficulties, a political player.

For months, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy were the eurzone's inseparable political duo. He was effusive and talked in a grand way about the historical importance of Franco-German relations. She, more pragmatic, concentrated on the here-and-now.

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From a frosty beginning their relationship evolved towards mutual respect. They met, bickered, compromised and then decided on eurozone policy.

With France struggling to contain its budget deficit and French banks heavily exposed to Greece, Sarkozy embraced Merkel's economic view of the world - austerity measures until a balanced budget is achieved.

He brought his admiration for the 'German model' into his electoral campaign. She said she would support Sarkozy in his re-election bid "no matter what he does" and her Christian Democratic Party was equally warm. Plans were even afoot for the Chancellor to appear alongside the President in pre-election rallies.

But with just weeks to go until the first round of the elections on 22 April, 'Merkozy' - as their moniker goes - is no longer the talk of the eurozone.

Both sides have cooled. Sarkozy, after being mocked by opponents for being Germany's lapdog, no longer mentions Merkel or Germany in his campaign. His own party told him that it would do him no good to be seen alongside the German leader, who is associated with painful spending cuts in France.

On Berlin's side, it is becoming clear that Merkel risked causing long-term damage to relations with Paris by refusing to meet with Sarkozy's main challenger, the socialist Francois Hollande - who, until very recently, had a firm lead in the polls.

On Tuesday, Sarkozy publicly cemented the break, telling Europe 1 radio that "at one moment or another" he and Merkel would appear together to discuss Europe. But it would "not be at a rally because an election campaign is the business of the French."

His statement followed a major speech on Sunday which would not be viewed well in Germany, even allowing for normal pre-election hyperboles.

Sarkozy threatened to pull his country out of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone unless more is done to stop irregular immigration and took a swipe at free trade, suggesting there should be a "Buy European" law.

As his campaign takes on a more populist and right-wing tone, German newspapers have begun to ask if the Chancellor still wants to be seen as his running mate.

'Do you really want this guy, Frau Merkel?' a headline by the Die Zeit newspaper said last week.

Meanwhile, for Sarkozy, the anti-immigrant stance seems to be paying better dividends than the Merkozy hook-up. Following Sunday's speech he pulled ahead of Hollande in polls for the first time since electioneering began in earnest.

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