Lightning jump-starts Franco-German motor

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande both said economic growth was a key issue during their talks

What exactly did the Greek gods mean when they hurled a bolt of lightning at the plane conveying the President of France to his rendezvous with German destiny?

It now seems obvious. The fates wanted to shake Francois Hollande from his easy reverie in the gentle world of mortals, and inform him - rudely - that he had entered a whirlwind of crisis.

He started the day as an ordinary man with barely a care and ended it with the weight of the world - or at least the Euro-world - on his shoulders.

Or maybe it was a signal of love at first sight. After all, the French term for such a blissful match is "coup de foudre", which means literally "lightning strike".

There they were, the two strangers - he rushing to her. They were anxious about their first meeting - and lo and behold: a bolt from the blue, a sign from the heavens. It could only presage amity and joy.

By the time he finally got to Berlin, two hours late after a detour back to Paris for a replacement plane, it looked more like the former. The Greeks had given up on trying to form a government. There would be an election, with the electorate in a volatile, angry mood. The lightning bolt was clearly from them.

This meant that the first big decision of Francois Hollande's presidency had to be taken immediately: would he stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his new German partner in her stern message to the Greeks (keep taking the painful medicine you've already agreed to) or would he reveal the softer side that helped get him elected by his own people?

Time pressure
Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel (15/05/12) Mr Hollande has to quickly learn the twists and turns of EU diplomacy

President Hollande did what it seems likely that President Nicolas Sarkozy would have done: he asserted, as one with Chancellor Angela Merkel, that (1) Greece should remain within the euro and (2) that it should adhere to the painful commitments already made.

The British Prime Minister of the 1960s, Harold Macmillan, is said to have replied when asked what was most likely to blow a politician off course: "Events, dear boy, events". President Hollande may now understand that sentiment.

The German papers the morning after the night before are full of pictures of the new French president being guided along the red carpet in Berlin by the German chancellor.

"Chancellor Merkel shows President Francois Hollande the right way", as the Frankfurter Allgemeine puts it. Everywhere the headline is: "Blitzbesuch" - lightning visit, conveying the drama of the flight but also a sense of a man being thrown into a whirlwind of crisis.

At one point in the meeting, the two tripped over each other. He looked like a man finding his way - which, of course, he is. He has never held public office and his new best friend, Angela, is an old hand at summitry and crisis management.

They spoke as one on Greece and they spoke as one on the need for their alliance to succeed.

Francois Hollande at a glance

  • Born 1954 in Rouen
  • Socialist party leader 1997-2008
  • Has proposed 75% top rate of tax
  • Wants to renegotiate EU fiscal pact

He: "We want to work together for the good of Europe but we also want to mobilise all of the other countries of Europe".

She: "We know the responsibility we have as Germany and France for a good development of Europe and I think in the nature of this spirit, we will find the solutions for the individual problems."

Different priorities

But they also recognised their differences. They didn't spell them out, but everybody knows the main one is over how growth can be achieved.

She is adamant that the EU fiscal pact, which ties government spending very tightly to government revenue, will not be renegotiated.

He was definite before the election - and repeated it after his inauguration as president - that it should be revisited.

There will now be a debate about economics with, as he put it, "everything on the table".

In her favour is the plain fact that the deal has been done. In his favour is the sense that voters are increasingly questioning whether "austerity" makes the patient better or puts the patient into intensive care.

Voters in France and Greece clearly questioned that, but now voters in Germany are doing so too (and Chancellor Merkel is very sensitive to the views of voters in Germany as she heads towards an election next year).

Last weekend, the voters of North Rhine-Westphalia in the west of Germany gave Ms Merkel's centre-right party, the CDU, a stinging defeat. It was not an election fought on national policies, let alone policies towards Greece or the euro.

But attitudes to public spending did figure. The Social Democrats (SPD) triumphed after arguing against a policy of heavily squeezed public spending.

The defeat of the CDU in such a big state has prompted recriminations and debate within her own circle. Even one of her close allies, Horst Seehofer who leads the CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, has questioned whether you can get growth without borrowing.

So attitudes are shifting. The debate isn't fixed. And as Greece heads to the polls again, the conflicting voices will surely get louder and more angry.

So the bolt of lightning might have meant both a signal of love - though eventual, slow-growing love in adversity - and the anger of the Greeks.

Either way, it was a baptism of fire.

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Hollande in power

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