Hollande Hosts Merkel Challenger in Election-Year Snub

French President Francois Hollande hosted Angela Merkel’s opposition challenger for talks in Paris, sending the German chancellor a public signal that she won’t get his support in federal elections in less than six months.

Peer Steinbrueck, a Social Democrat who served as finance minister in Merkel’s first-term coalition until 2009, met Hollande at the president’s Elysee Palace today. The discussions were due to focus on Europe, Cyprus and crisis management, Steinbrueck told reporters in Berlin before he left for the French capital.

The reception for Steinbrueck underscores the friction between the French Socialist president and Merkel as they spar over Europe’s economic direction, a year after she supported Hollande’s political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his bid for a second term.

“As you know, Mrs. Merkel and I do not always share the same views,” Hollande said March 28 in an interview with France 2 television. While governments need to be “rigorous” in controlling budget deficits, further austerity will hurt economic growth and feed populist political parties across Europe, the president said. The chancellor is “conscious” of the risk, he said.

Steinbrueck shares Hollande’s focus on the need to do more to spur growth in a Europe scarred by three years of the sovereign debt crisis that emerged in Greece and raged through Portugal, Ireland, Spain and now Cyprus. Unemployment in the 17-nation euro area is at a record 12 percent, while the region’s economy has contracted for five straight quarters and is forecast to shrink again in the first three months of this year.

Redemption Fund

Steinbrueck’s Social Democrats, who are due to hold a special party convention on April 14 to vote on their campaign platform, want euro-area debt to be pooled in a “redemption fund,” having shifted away from earlier support for joint euro bonds. Merkel rejects euro bonds and has failed to support the redemption fund. Steinbrueck has also called on the European Commission to show flexibility toward France on meeting its deficit targets.

Polls show that German voters support Merkel’s crisis management to date. Sixty-five percent of respondents said Merkel has handled the euro-area crisis “correctly and decisively,” with 29 percent saying they disagreed, according to an Infratest Dimap poll for ARD television released today. That’s the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in July 2011 and six percentage points more than last month’s survey, before the Cyprus rescue was sealed.

Chancellor Candidates

Merkel, who remains Germany’s most popular politician, extended her lead over Steinbrueck in terms of voter preference for chancellor, with 60 percent favoring the incumbent to 25 percent backing her challenger. Ninety-six percent of supporters of Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc want to see her chancellor, while only 34 percent of Social Democrats say they want Steinbrueck in the post. Fifty-seven percent of Social Democrat voters say they don’t want their party’s candidate to become chancellor.

The poll of 1,502 voters was conducted on April 2 and April 3 and the results carry a margin of error of as much as 3.1 percentage points, Infratest said.

Merkel’s personal popular rating held steady in the poll, with 68 percent saying they were content or very content with her performance, placing her top of a list of 14 politicians. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, a fellow member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, placed second with 63 percent, followed in third place by Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democrat prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, who had 54 percent.

Lowest Rating

Steinbrueck placed 11th on the list, with 32 percent of respondents saying they were happy with his work, a decline of 4 points since March. That’s his lowest rating since 2005 when he moved from North Rhine-Westphalia, where he too was premier, to join Merkel’s grand coalition of their two parties, ARD said.

Steinbrueck’s plummeting popularity is something else he has in common with Hollande, whose approval rating dropped below 30 percent in a CSA poll published in the newspaper Les Echos yesterday. That makes Hollande the least popular French president since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958, Les Echos said.

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