Merkel Turns to Hollande to Regain Spark Amid Domestic Woes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will turn to French President Francois Hollande for respite from her domestic turmoil as she travels to Paris on her first foreign trip this year after recovering from a ski injury.

The German leader was forced to lie low after fracturing her pelvis on a skip trip in December, allowing her new Social Democratic coalition partner to claim the limelight. A scandal over a former SPD lawmaker and possible mishandling of confidential information, which prompted a cabinet resignation and threatens to spread, is compounding her difficulties.

Ceding her top spot as Germany’s most popular politician to SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a Feb. 6 ARD poll, Merkel is struggling to maintain momentum after winning re-election in September by her party’s largest margin since 1990. Ministers meeting in Paris today will face pressure to respond to the violence in Ukraine, giving Merkel a chance to regain her international profile and shift attention away from the political squabbling that’s overtaken Berlin.

“The start to Merkel’s coalition in 2009 wasn’t optimal, but this time the cabinet’s start has been especially unfortunate,” Juergen Falter, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz, said in a phone interview. “Angela Merkel will be happy that at least for a few hours she’s away from the domestic political commotion.”

Contrasting Fortunes

The chancellor’s troubles underscore the contrast in fortunes between the leaders of Europe’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies. Hollande, a Socialist whom Merkel opposed during the campaign for the French presidency in 2012, will host her at the Elysee Palace on the rebound from his own start-of-year scandal and fresh from a state visit to Washington, the first for a French leader since 1996.

As Merkel is accused of backsliding on reform, Hollande’s proposal on Jan. 14 to boost French competitiveness by trimming payroll taxes was welcomed by Merkel’s government and German business. France joined Germany in posting economic growth that beat economists’ estimates in the fourth quarter.

It is France seeking to rein in German ambitions for a tax on financial transactions, urging a more “realistic” levy.

On the agenda for today’s talks is cooperation on energy, military missions and efforts to counter U.S. spying. The overnight escalation of violence in Kiev will also require a response, with Steinmeier saying late yesterday in Berlin that Europe’s “self-imposed restraint in deciding on individual sanctions” was now open to review.

Gurria, Barroso

Merkel and Hollande are due to hold a press conference at 2:45 p.m. The chancellor will then meet with Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Secretary General Angel Gurria and deliver a speech at the OECD’s Paris headquarters at 5 p.m. before giving a statement with Hollande and European Commission President Jose Barroso at 6:45 p.m.

Germany and France will call on power-grid operators on both sides of the Rhine to build closer ties, according to a French government official. That effort will be a move in the direction of Hollande’s call last month for a Franco-German energy alliance, an endeavor he compared to Airbus Group NV.

The two sides will also discuss expanding joint defense projects, such as security in Africa and procurement, and how to support Internet providers that protect Europeans’ privacy and avoid U.S.-based servers, Merkel said in her official podcast on Feb. 15. Relations with Hollande, who beat Merkel’s favored candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, to the presidency, “continue to develop,” she said.

Approval Ratings

Traveling abroad at the helm of her cabinet contrasts with the low profile Merkel has kept at home. As SPD leaders make headlines -- Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel with Germany’s energy shift and Steinmeier by traveling the globe -- Merkel has been less in the public eye.

Her absence has hurt her personal approval ratings, which dropped to 53 percent in a weekly Forsa poll for Stern magazine today, down from 65 percent in October. That’s still at historic levels, according to Forsa chief Manfred Guellner.

Even as she spent much time in bed in the first weeks of the year because of the ski injury, her partial retreat from day-to-day politics is part of a strategy to take more of a back seat in domestic policy in her third term, according to a person familiar with the chancellor’s thinking. She plans to stay above the fray, said the person, who asked not to be named discussing internal government matters.

Chancellery Talks

Conflict between Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc and the SPD broke out last week after revelations that top officials knew of an investigation into former SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy.

Merkel met with SPD head Gabriel and Horst Seehofer, chief of her CSU Bavarian sister party, at the chancellery late yesterday in an attempt to restore trust. The interior affairs committee of the lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, is hearing evidence on the matter today, with a debate in the full chamber scheduled for 3 p.m. in Berlin.

Edathy is suspected of downloading images of nude boys that may constitute child pornography, the Hanover prosecutor said Feb. 14. Edathy, 44, who resigned his seat this month citing health reasons, denies possessing child pornography.

Squabbling over which politician knew about the probe and when raises questions of “trust within the coalition,” Merkel said yesterday. “But we also know that the coalition can only do its work -- and we have a clear mandate from the German people -- when we trust each other.”

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