Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

The initial German media reaction to Francois Hollande’s election in France has been a mixture of caution, concern and criticism. Hollande’s first trip as President to Berlin next week is being billed as a showdown with Chancellor Merkel, with battle lines drawn over German and French arguments over how to restore growth and stability in Europe.

However, the French election campaign is over. Hollande now has to put together a government, and there he will likely encounter the French version of the old saying “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.”

While Hollande has to figure out what campaign promises he can actually keep, he also needs to speak with Merkel about which conflicts and compromises will set their agenda – one which still remains of central importance to both France, Germany and indeed the EU. The challenge both leaders face is in sustaining a sufficient domestic consensus to support a viable set of compromises with each other. Hollande did not win a landslide election and he is still awaiting the formation of a new National Assembly in June. Merkel’s conservative coalition in Berlin has been losing traction at the regional level during the past several elections and she is likely to see another setback in Germany’s biggest state – North Rhine-Westphalia – on Sunday.

Even if the parameters of their partnership have changed during the past two decades, Germany and France remain the central lynch pin of the European Union. If that pin weakens, it will increase the strains elsewhere in Europe.

Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel may be more similar in style than in substance – the reverse of Merkel and Sarkozy. That may be an advantage as they forge their own partnership. Nevertheless, they remain dependent on each other to frame the choices they face if Europe is to find its way out of the trouble it is in.

Can Merkozy morph into Merllande? French-German political pairs of party colors have worked well before.

Another old French saying might apply – “the more things change, the more they stay the same.