The new beginning for the most important relationship in Europe — between Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France — started on Tuesday with a bolt from the blue, an apology, and a sense of harmony that seemed somehow more sincere for the adversity that came before it.
Hours after he was inaugurated, Mr. Hollande's trip to Germany was nearly cancelled when his aircraft was struck by lightning after take-off. He returned to Paris, boarded another jet and flew through a storm to Berlin, arriving an hour and a half late.
“Sorry,” he told Ms. Merkel in English, “my plane had a problem.”
Ms. Merkel said at their first joint news conference that it was “a good omen for the cooperation” that, instead of rescheduling, Mr. Hollande had persevered on to Berlin. Such determination could come in handy as these leaders of Europe's two largest economies face the escalating tension of the continent's debt crisis and confront each other's opposing positions on how to resolve it.
Earlier in the day came the news that France's stagnant economy had not grown at all in the first quarter. New elections would be required in Greece, promising even more uncertainty and turmoil there and raising the chances that Greece could be forced to leave the euro, a prospect Mr. Hollande and Ms. Merkel said they both opposed.
For the good of the euro
“We want to work together with all the other countries for the good of the euro,” said Mr. Hollande, as the two stressed their points of agreement and played down their quarrels.
There was little evidence of progress in the debate over austerity, favoured by Ms. Merkel, and growth, which Mr. Hollande made a central pillar of his presidential campaign; the stated purpose of the meeting was simply for the two to get to know each other.
“They are practically forced to work together,” said Sabine von Oppeln, a political scientist and expert in French-German relations at the Free University in Berlin. “Both countries need to see this crisis finally overcome.”
Their relationship will be vital to the future of the European Union and its common currency.
Mr. Hollande confronts a difficult economic situation at home. The European Commission estimated recently that France's budget deficit next year would be about 4.2 per cent of gross domestic product, well above the target level of three per cent that Mr. Hollande says he will match. Mr. Hollande (57) had only become President the first Socialist to hold the office since Francois Mitterand that morning, in a dignified ceremony held in a red and gold hall in the Elysee Palace. Mr. Hollande, the seventh President of the Fifth Republic, was accompanied by his partner, Valerie Trierweiler.
He received the codes to the country's nuclear arsenal from his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as some private counsel, perhaps even about how to deal with the tough German Chancellor. Afterward, the two men were joined by Ms. Trierweiler and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
Despite a packed schedule in Paris, Mr. Hollande then flew to Berlin, signalling the importance he placed on the relationship between the two countries. Spiegel magazine described the meeting, in an article under the headline “Couples Therapy”, as one between leaders who “from now on will be chained together, but in the past months appeared to be opponents”.The two leaders find themselves in very different positions. Mr. Hollande just won election and has a mandate to tackle his country's problems from the left. Ms. Merkel's party has suffered consecutive losses in State votes and presides over an unruly, bickering coalition in Berlin.
They both face difficult balancing acts involving the domestic constituencies that they hope to soothe and the financial markets that they do not want to unsettle.
“They must show their supporters at home that they don't give in too easily,” said Thomas Klau, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. “But anything like a prolonged Franco-German rift would be highly destabilising and therefore highly dangerous. That, in itself, creates a pressure for reasonably early consensus.”
Mr. Hollande on Tuesday also named as his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, a fluent German speaker who may help smooth relations with German policymakers. Yet Mr. Ayrault, 62, also has good connections with Germany's main opposition party, the Social Democrats, and their leader, Sigmar Gabriel.
Mr. Gabriel held his own news conference on Tuesday, in which he praised Mr. Hollande and was sharply critical of the crisis management of Ms. Merkel, saying that growth proposals fell on “deaf ears” with the Chancellor.
“We hope that in spite of differences of opinions in the past they can start up the German-French motor and finally get it going in the right direction,” Mr. Gabriel said.
The two sides worked hard to manage every detail of the meeting between the two leaders but were unable to control the weather. The event felt rushed and improvised rather than meticulously organised. When Ms. Merkel said, “We are all the happier that he made it although lightning struck first,” it sounded genuine.
They did not try to paper over their disagreements, both admitting that there were differences between what they meant when they talked about strategies to promote growth. Asked whether he would insist on renegotiating the fiscal compact signed by 25 out of 27 European Union leaders in March, Mr. Hollande said he and Ms. Merkel had agreed to put “all ideas and all proposals on the table and see what legal means exist to put them into effect”.
Ms. Merkel said that other than a few words in English when the interpreters were not there, they had each spoken their native tongues. “I can assure you that even when one speaks French, the German Chancellor understands,” Mr. Hollande said, “and the opposite is equally true.”
— New York Times News Service