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The Merkel-Sarkozy ‘odd couple’ becomes a campaign duo

A German chancellor stumping for a standing French president is not something the French have seen before.

A German chancellor stumping for a standing French president is not something the French have seen before.

But Angela Merkel hit the airwaves here yesterday on behalf of the embattled Nicolas Sarkozy, saying in a TV interview it was “only natural” for her to cross borders to support the reelection of a fellow conservative-minded leader.

In France the idea is alternately depicted as bold and reassuring or a ridiculous last ditch measure by Sarkozy forces – defying history and culture on the two sides of the Rhine, and transcending two world wars.

Ms. Merkel’s party apparatus endorses the idea as does Sarkozy’s. The less clear question is what French voters will think.

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“Sarkozy thinks it will pay off with centrist voters and those who feel that France needs more reforms and more German-style reforms,” says Thomas Klau of the Paris branch of the European Council of Foreign Relations. “But this is a political risk with a possible backlash. To constantly tout Germany as a model to follow is not quite seemly for a French president.”

Polls show Sarkozy, elected in 2007, fighting an uphill political battle to win back high office and has hinted his political life may be over. He is well behind Socialist contender Francois Hollande and may have his vote cut by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Even the right-leaning Le Figaro, one of Sarkozy’s strongest media supporters, recently criticized him for waiting too long to put up a full-scale fight.

Sarkozy forces are betting Merkel’s support will strengthen the perception that he is crucial for Europe‘s recovery in the midst of a debt crisis that threatens its stability. Merkel is respected by the French as a serious leader of Europe’s largest economy and is the symbolic other half of the “Franco-German” relationship that defined and motored Europe at its most prosperous and powerful.

Yesterday the two leaders jointly called on Russia and China to stop blocking UN action on Syria and met about ways to resolve new and troubling internal disagreements in Greece over the term of its bailout funding.

Several years ago, they were called Europe’s “odd couple” – a systematic and cautious daughter of an East German Protestant minister paired with an often impulsive, flashy, and voluble iconoclast who in Merkel’s view never seemed to do his homework.

But confronted with the euro crisis the two have found convergence in their views on fixing Europe and the duo has become known colloquially as “Merkozy.” They alternate taking the lead on what are clearly German ideas.

“Nicolas Sarkozy supported me during my campaign,” Merkel said in recent weeks after the French leader helped pave the way last month for a new European fiscal union that champions austerity and competitiveness as a way out of the two year debt crisis. “In the same way, I will now pay back that which he gave me.”

Yet being respected by French as a German president, and having Merkel show up on TV and at a planned rally in March to persuade French voters, may be two different things, analysts say.

“Through Merkel he seeks credibility as an international figure protecting Europe,” says Arun Kapil, a political scientist at Catholic University in Paris. “But I can’t believe Sarkozy’s advisers have hard data supporting this. To push Germany right now in France makes no sense. Germany doesn’t exactly provoke a positive reaction among French people.”

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“It’s quite surprising in one sense,” says Claire Edey Gamassou, a former Socialist candidate from Paris for the European parliament. “Sarkozy has not announced his candidacy, yet she [Merkel] is ready to campaign for him. His first support comes from outside of France, not inside.”