Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her first public appearance alongside newly inaugurated French President Francois Hollande with a joke.
Merkel said she was “very glad” that Hollande came to Berlin the day of his inauguration. “We are even more glad because he did this despite the lightning strike,” she told reporters. “Maybe this is good omen for cooperation.”
The 27-minute press conference was delayed by more than 1 1/2 hours after Hollande’s plane was struck by lightning, forcing him to return to Paris and board a second flight. Their briefing was marked by grins and an apparent rapport between the leaders. A working relationship is the minimum needed as the two pivotal policy makers seek common ground and lead Europe’s so-far unsuccessful effort to fix the financial crisis.
“I want to give a sense of what the friendship between our two countries” means, Hollande said. “I consider this a relationship that is balanced and respectful.” France and Germany “want to work together for the good of Europe.”
Hollande left Paris in the rain and arrived in Berlin in the drizzle. Nikolas Meyer-Landrut, Merkel’s European affairs adviser, a fluent French speaker, warmly greeted Hollande’s aides as they waited for the two leaders to walk past a military guard of honor outside the Chancellery.
Hollande, who paraded along the Champs-Elysees in a French-made Citroen DS5 hybrid after his inauguration less than 12 hours earlier, drew up outside the Chancellery in a black Mercedes S-Class sedan built in Stuttgart.
As the two leaders inspected the guard, television cameras at one point showed Merkel gently guiding Hollande to the right side of the red carpet as he threatened to veer into her path.
After exchanging pleasantries in English, they switched to their respective tongues once inside the chancellery to discuss the debt crisis and “of course Greece,” Merkel said. They did their talking mostly through interpreters and Hollande said that wasn’t a hindrance.
“It was a common language, namely the language of the common interest of the will of each one to find solutions,” Hollande said. “I can assure you that the German chancellor understands even if one speaks French. And the reverse is true, too: a French president understands a German chancellor.”
Pictures released by her office today showed the two chatting over coffee, then taking their conversation outside to the balcony that overlooks the Reichstag building and the River Spree that once formed the border between East and West Berlin.
At their subsequent press conference, Merkel and Hollande “offered glimpses at possible compromises, confirming the broadly held views in the markets” that they may get along, said Christian Schulz, an economist at Berenberg Bank in London. The impression they gave was that they might “resume the Franco-German crisis management soon.”
The two share a modest personal style. Hollande has said he intends to remain in his Paris apartment instead of moving into the Elysee Palace, much as Merkel has remained in her flat in central Berlin.
Merkel may find Hollande, the self-proclaimed “normal” French president, a closer temperamental match than his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. A trained physicist who says she analyzes before deciding and talks about her home cooking in interviews, Merkel was a contrast to Sarkozy’s “President Bling Bling,” a leader who sought the spotlight. Their styles were “like fire and water,” according to a U.S. diplomatic memo published by Wikileaks.
Merkel and Sarkozy, both 57, were the first leaders of their countries born after World War II. Yet it took the threat to the euro for them to form a united front. They only struck up a rapport as they declared they would “do everything” to protect the single currency.
During the French presidential election campaign, Merkel risked a lasting rift with the Socialist Hollande, also 57, by publicly backing Sarkozy for a second term, saying that it was natural to support the head of her sister party.
For all their differences, German and French leaders of opposing political camps have a history of cooperation. The two nations, former enemies that fought three wars between 1870 and 1945, were founding members of the European Union that was created to make military conflict between them impossible.
Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d’Estaing gave impetus to the Group of Seven in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl and Socialist Francois Mitterrand clasped hands at the World War I battlefield cemetery of Verdun in a gesture of reconciliation. Social Democratic Gerhard Schroeder and Gaullist Jacques Chirac found common cause in opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
In Berlin last night, Hollande said “it’s not the first time” that French and German leaders are from opposing political camps. “But that’s not a debate I want to get into right now,” he said, waving his hands and drawing a grin from Merkel. “What I do know is that we have a common task.”