German frustration with French leader mounts

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were expected to form the perfect couple—a pair of like-minded conservative leaders who would work hand in hand to heal Europe after its Iraq divisions and failed constitution.

But four months after Sarkozy roared into the Élysée Palace, it is the differences, in both style and substance, between the brash new French president and the discreet German chancellor that are beginning to draw attention.

From his first day in office, when he jetted up to Berlin to demand an overhaul of planemaker Airbus’s Franco-German parent company Eads, the Frenchman’s bullish diplomacy has grated on his German partners.

This summer, he infuriated, shocked and baffled German officials by reneging on budget pledges, striking a nuclear cooperation deal with Libya and claiming to have influenced rate decisions at the fiercely independent European Central Bank.

At a meeting north of Berlin on Monday, Sarkozy and Merkel demonstrated what they can achieve together, launching a new European Union initiative aimed at curbing excesses in financial markets.

But even this show of unity was coloured by a new conflict—a threat by Sarkozy, first delivered to Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber in Paris the previous week, to kick Germany’s Siemens out of a nuclear joint venture with French firm Areva.

During a joint news conference, an impatient Merkel stood tensely as Sarkozy lectured her on the virtues of nuclear power, an energy source she favours but cannot foster because of a phase-out deal forced upon her by her coalition partners.

According to a French spokesperson, Sarkozy told his Cabinet on Wednesday that his talks with Merkel had been “very frank”.

“The differences in style have been obvious to everybody,” said Ulrike Guerot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And a lot of people are surprised with how pushy Sarkozy has been with Merkel.”

Teaming up

The similarities between the two leaders, who were born just six months apart in 1954 and 1955, still run deep. Both favour close ties with the United States, reform of the European welfare state and oppose Turkey’s bid to join the EU.

Since Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac in May, they have worked well at times, teaming to convince US President George Bush to support United Nations climate efforts and winning EU support for a pared-down version of the bloc’s dead Constitution.

Publicly, German officials highlight these joint achievements when asked about frictions in the relationship.

But privately, they express a mixture of disappointment, surprise and irritation at the French leader’s hyperactive first months in office, which stand in sharp contrast to Merkel’s low-key but coolly effective start as chancellor.

Particularly annoying to Merkel’s entourage has been Sarkozy’s perceived habit of claiming credit for diplomatic initiatives made in Berlin.

During Germany’s presidency of the EU this year, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier worked overtime for the release of Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya only for Sarkozy and his wife to swoop in and win the acclaim when they were freed.
Merkel’s government fought for months to secure a G8 agreement on boosting transparency for hedge funds, winning only lukewarm support from the French.

This week, Sarkozy appeared to claim the issue as his own, suggesting to his Cabinet in Paris that he had secured a reluctant Merkel’s support for their EU markets initiative, according to the French spokesperson.

Budget race

When Stoiber paid a visit to Paris last week, Sarkozy issued his Siemens threat and raged about German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck for criticising his budget plans at a recent meeting in Brussels, according to an official familiar with the meeting.

Local media have reported that Sarkozy called Merkel to demand she reprimand Steinbrueck for the slight—a request she denied. Other reports have suggested the German leader is fed up with Sarkozy’s public displays of affection—the touching, hugging and kissing that took place on camera on Monday.

Ruprecht Polenz, head of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament and a member of Merkel’s conservatives, said he expected tensions to ease once Sarkozy settled into his post.

“I was one of those who criticised Sarkozy’s Libya policy, but my impression is that he saw the reaction in Germany and elsewhere and will change accordingly,” he told Reuters. - Reuters

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