Why Did Merkel Endorse Sarkozy’s French Presidential Re-Election Bid?

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel give a news conference following an intergovernmental meeting at the Elysée Palace on Feb. 6, 2012, in Paris

How odd is this picture? The leader of one country visits the head of state of a neighboring nation to explicitly support the host’s uphill re-election plans — despite the political and diplomatic problems that may arise if his rival candidate wins. The scene becomes stranger still when that unusual foreign endorsement is for an incumbent whose entire electoral strategy centers on delaying entry into an already full-blown presidential race for as long as possible. That cross-border campaigning initiative becomes even more perplexing when — rather predictably — response to the move dismisses it as an act of desperation, and a cynical embrace likely to drag both politicians down. Little wonder politicians tend to mind their own electoral beeswax.

Yet that curious exercise in interventionist politics is exactly what German Chancellor Angela Merkel engaged in on Monday in Paris, when she backed the technically undeclared re-election plans of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It remains to be seen whether Merkel’s unusual out-of-country stumping for her fellow conservative will improve Sarkozy’s compromised chances for recapturing the Elysée — or may instead create tensions in French-German relations if Socialist Party candidate François Hollande wins the presidency. The risk of the latter is considerable. Current polls predict Hollande beating Sarkozy in presidential polling in April and May handily; the Socialist has also pledged to renegotiate the recent E.U. treaty on debt-and-deficit reduction largely dictated by Germany — thereby risking a potential clash at the summit of European power amid an enduring economic crisis.

On Monday, Merkel took time out of a joint press conference otherwise dominated by topics of Greek debt and violence in Syria to voice her backing for Sarkozy’s looming re-election bid. Merkel later reiterated her backing of Sarkozy and his imminent campaign in an interview broadcast Monday night on French and German television.

“I support Nicolas Sarkozy on all levels because we belong to political parties that are friends,” Merkel said. Still, Merkel also rationalized the unusual intervention into a neighboring country’s electoral process by noting she was merely replicating Sarkozy’s earlier (and equally eyebrow-raising) support of her during German polling in 2009. “He supported me, and it is natural that I support him in his campaign,” she explained.

So much for the traditional effort of leaders to avoid interfering with internal affairs of other nations.

Though the private preference of various foreign governments and publics in elections unfolding in other countries has never been much of a secret, the direct and active participation of leaders in other nations’ political campaigns is unusual. Despite the overwhelming international opposition to and dislike of U.S. President George W. Bush, for example, no credible head of state elsewhere in the world weighed in with support for John Kerry in 2004. Similarly, in spite of the nearly universal global preference for Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. campaign, overt backing of his candidacy in foreign capitals was couched in plausible deniability when it was expressed at all. Case in point: Sarkozy, whose warm embrace of candidate Obama in July 2008 was about as close to an official endorsement as possible without crossing the line. Indeed, given that precedent, it may be little wonder that the following year Sarkozy went even further by actively supporting Merkel’s re-election effort with a campaign appearance. That may make it less surprising to see Sarkozy now soliciting Merkel’s backing in the face of a seriously uphill re-election outlook.

But calling in political help from abroad carries risks — some of which explain why officials have customarily avoided weighing into campaign activity across borders. First, despite their personal or political preferences in foreign elections, few acting leaders want to dare backing the losing side — then find themselves having to deal with the resentful winner they have wanted to be defeated. Meantime, perception of international kibitzing in national elections also threatens to annoy the public preparing to cast votes — and provoke the opposite reaction intended. The potential for that in France is particularly high now, given sentiment that German leadership — or domination — in the euro crisis has been particularly heavy-handed. Yet as this Financial Times article notes, both Sarkozy and Merkel appear to have thrown such concerns to the wind on the logic that their political careers may now depend upon each other — and that a victory of the left in France’s general elections, spanning from April to June, could open the way for a similar shift in Germany over time. The odds, policy changes, and potential political consequences of a Hollande win, therefore, overshadowed any scruples Sarkozy and Merkel may have ever had about keeping national campaigning entirely domestic.

Predictably, Le Figaro, the militantly conservative French daily, hailed Monday’s Merkozy hookup with the headline, “Sarkozy-Merkel: The Anti-Hollande Pact.” Not all reaction was as trumpeting. Many editorialists noted how the fractious, at times disdainful, relationship between the two leaders has only grown more solid under the dire, mutually threatening urgency of the euro crisis — but with earlier roles reversed and leaving Merkel clearly in the driver’s seat. All that explains the dynamic of Merkel’s endorsement for Sarkozy, some commentators say. With opinion rising around Europe that biting austerity applied across the euro zone has in large part been imposed by all-mighty Berlin, the daily République du Centre argued that “the Chancellor needs Nicolas Sarkozy [in office] to escape criticism of German domination” of Europe. But if that’s the case, noted the regional French daily Sud-Ouest, “this intrusion by the German Chancellor in the French campaign risks making Nicolas Sarkozy look more like a vassal than an ally” — in addition to a “weakened candidate looking for backing.”

Meantime, with resentment growing in Europe and France about Germany’s hard line in dealing with the debt crisis, the southern French daily Dépêche du Midi asked whether “our President will really benefit of being sponsored this way by the House of Merkel.” Ouest-France reasoned with reverse logic, saying Merkel’s backing of Sarkozy wasn’t simply intended to lift his sagging re-election chances, but to anticipate a possible Hollande victory by “creating another power game in Europe so [Hollande’s] positions will not be echoed in a Germany where debate is growing over the limits that austerity” policies have.

By contrast, Hollande and his allies appeared to shrug off Merkel’s noteworthy intervention in domestic French electoral politics as a sign of just how desperate France’s conservatives have become. Hollande campaign manager Pierre Moscovici said Tuesday that Merkel’s endorsement of Sarkozy made a mockery of the President’s contention that his candidacy is yet to be declared. Merkel’s support (and Sarkozy’s acceptance) of a candidate in everything but name, Moscovici argued, means Sarkozy must cease using what are now called state visits and speeches as de facto campaign appearances — outings that are currently being paid for by taxpayers to boot.

Hollande, meanwhile, assured the press and public alike that Merkel’s support of Sarkozy was not a problem, and that “it won’t prevent me from doing everything I need to with the German Chancellor if I’m elected.” Still, Hollande suggested Merkel’s alliance with the Sarkozy re-election effort had gotten her involved with a goal possibly even more formidable than saving Greece from default or the euro from implosion. “She’s set herself quite a harsh task,” Hollande mused of Sarkozy’s re-election boosting. “That Nicolas Sarkozy needs Madame Merkel says a lot about his situation.”