It is January 21, 2013, and it is snowing in Berlin. François Hollande and Angela Merkel are celebrating together the fiftieth anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the agreement that sealed the postwar reconciliation of France and Germany in 1963. Enveloped in long black coats, their heads bare beneath the snowflakes, they take a few steps on the slippery pavement before disappearing into Lutter & Wegner, an old tavern on the Gendarmenmarkt. Once inside, as the members of the little group take off their coats and hats, the duo are able to exchange a few words about this historic place, which has already marked two centennials. The white tablecloths, wainscoting and subdued lighting furnish an ambiance conducive to relaxation. Angela Merkel takes François Hollande aside: "Now that we know each other well, let’s call each other by our first names and use the familiar form."
" Bien sûr, Angela," agrees a delighted Hollande. The conversation then turns to Mali. Germany is unable to intervene, but the chancellor would very much like to help Hollande. "What do you need?" Merkel asks. "Air refueling capabilities," Hollande responds. The chancellor immediately turns inquiringly to her advisors. What can they put at the disposal of the French?
After this, the two move on to lighter fare, a bit of gossip. Merkel is extremely good at making fun of those who are absent. It helps her put her interlocutor at ease and forge a bond. This is something advisors at the Elysée Palace saw her do under Sarkozy as well. She works her way through European heads of state: the cowardliness of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council; her disdain for José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission; her poor opinion of Mario Monti’s job leading the previous European Commission. The whole cast comes up. Only Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, escapes unscathed. But on this particular evening, as several participants later recount, the chancellor’s best story is about Vladimir Putin: "When everything is going well, he speaks to me in Russian. But as soon as there’s a problem, when he wants to throw me off balance, he speaks to me in German, whispering ‘ Alles gut , Angela?’ into my ear." The tone is identical to that of an old KGB agent: Is everything good ? Bursts of laughter ensue.
When it is time to say goodbye, everyone is in a good mood. The advisors congratulate each other. A warming of Franco-German relations is underway despite the Berlin cold. It may not be a passionate attachment, but at least the duo can work together.
The famous Franco-German couple is at the heart of the European project. For heads of state and government on both sides of the Rhine, this has simply always been a given. Even though they may not be on the same side, even if they do not conduct the same policies, they are obliged to get along. France is Germany’s first economic partner and its first political partner. No other European leaders spend as much time together. Inevitably, each new combination opens with a ritual: the first visit of a newly elected French president takes place in Germany. Similarly, a chancellor’s first trip abroad is to Paris.
Men and women of very different backgrounds have shaped the various incarnations of the Franco-German relationship. François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl had the experience of the war in common, and they spoke about it a great deal. The French president often spoke of his time as a prisoner of war in Germany, while the chancellor mourned his brother, who had fallen at the front. For his part, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing still remembers his first encounter with Helmut Schmidt in a cloud of cigarette smoke in the late 1960s, at a reception with Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European Union. Jacques Chirac got on so well with the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder that he would call his wife Doris to inquire after their adoptive daughter. Those two spent long evenings together solving the world’s problems over gigantic platters of seafood and tankards of beer. On the subject of the Franco-German relationship, Chirac was direct: "A couple needs to go to bed together."
There are no sparks of this sort between Hollande and Merkel. Each represents, in his or her own way, a generation that did not experience the war between the two countries. For them, displays of affect are secondary to solving the problems of the day. There’s no love between those two, at least not yet. Nor are there signs of "amour vache"—the kind of hurtful love we saw between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. The French president was constantly taunting the chancellor, mocking her supposed slowness, her immoderate taste for cheese, her refusal to participate in sports. Merkel for her part expressed her irritation with Sarkozy’s cavalier manners more than once – his quirk of pawing people when he speaks to them, of pointing his finger at his interlocutor, of catching people by surprise and forcing them when he wants a decision.
There’s no familiarity between Hollande and Merkel. Last winter, Merkel invited the English prime minister, David Cameron, to spend a family weekend with her at Schloss Meseberg in the forests of Brandenburg. She has never invited Hollande on a country outing. But when the chancellor did make a gesture, proposing at their very first meeting that he accompany her to the famous Bayreuth opera festival, it was the president who turned her down. He didn’t want to be seen wearing a tuxedo right in the middle of the euro crisis. "For us, the most important thing is the viability of our relationship, not its intimacy," confided Hollande last fall when he met with Le Monde’ s M magazine at the Elysée Palace.