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As Sarkozy seeks new term, French are wary of ‘Merkozy’

French President Nicholas Sarkozy is convinced that German chancellor Angela Merkel can help make his case for reelection.

Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to officially strap on his political battle gear today in an uphill bid for reelection.

An economic crisis and European leaders are toppling around him, and France‘s Triple A rating has also taken a tumble. Add to that Sarkozy’s deep unpopularity, and the French president will have to use his crisis smarts as a weapon to convince his countrymen that he should return as its leader for five more years.

If the world of Europe is turning upside down, he’s the “captain in the storm,” the guy with experience, the comeback kid, the toughest hombre on the block.  

And he is convinced that Europe’s most dominant leader, German chancellor Angela Merkel, can help make his case.

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Strong French and German relations have long been the core of postwar Europe, driving greater unity and decades of peace and prosperity.

Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy are hoping to polish that ideal and present a united front in support of the German model of European recovery.

The eurozone crisis has soured Europe’s mood sharply, bringing down five governments. On top of that, Sarkozy’s style so offends many French that one joke here has it that a third of them wouldn’t vote for him if he were running against the shipwrecked Costa Concordia‘s captain.

Ms. Merkel’s decision to stump for Sarkozy would have been unthinkable a few years ago, and is seen in Paris as alternately surreal, amazing, and baffling. Sarkozy wants it seen as a reassurance to the French of their importance to Europe — and his role in keeping it that way.

The Parisian satirical weekly Canard Enchaine ran a cartoon on Feb. 8 of Merkel saying to Sarkozy, “Are you sure? I’m not very popular in France.” To which Sarkozy retorts, “Neither am I.”

Merkel and Sarkozy have vastly different styles and were originally dubbed “the odd couple” after Sarkozy’s election in 2007. But as their views on the eurozone converged in the past two years, they’ve instead become known as “Merkozy.”

Postwar France, as Harvard University professor Stanley Hoffmann has argued, is obsessed with two things: fear of decline and fear of Germany. Sarkozy’s enlistment of Merkel addresses both.

He wants France, which registered a record €70 billion ($100 billion) trade deficit in 2011, to be more like Germany, which generated a €156 billion ($207 billion) surplus last year. Sarkozy used to see Britain under former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown as a model, but he now talks about a German-style value-added tax and constitutional debt limits. In a national TV appearance on Feb. 6, he spent an hour extolling German virtues.

But it may be a difficult sell for a French public that historically has not held favorable impressions of the German giant.

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“Sarkozy thinks [using Merkel] will pay off with centrist voters and those who feel that France needs more … German-style reforms,” says Thomas Klau 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.”

France was long the leader of Europe’s power duo

France led Europe’s power duo in the 30 so-called glory years after World War II, working to establish a “European Germany” that bound itself to the community and institutions.

Yet now a unified, export-driven Germany seems to be leading the Continent toward a “German Europe.” Berlin‘s economic policies and values — rules, efficiency, competitiveness, austerity — are the new European Union watchwords.

German leaders worry that the center-right partnership forged by Merkel and Sarkozy will be in jeopardy if French front-runner François Hollande of the Socialist Party wins. Mr. Hollande has vowed to block the EU “fiscal unity” pact that Merkel pushed through in December with Sarkozy’s support, and he has different debt-crisis prescriptions, including the eurobonds that Germany rejected and greater say for the 25 other EU states.

“Hollande’s weakest point is that he is totally disconnected from the reality of the world today,” Jean-François Copé, architect of Sarkozy’s reelection campaign, told Reuters. “There is no other solution than to imagine a ‘G2,’ Germany and France. We are bound to do this especially now as we build a new kind of European governance and strategy.”

Among Germans, Merkel’s help for Sarkozy reassures them that Germany is not standing alone and also validates the German direction in the EU.

“This suits the Germans since it makes it appear that things are normal,” a European diplomat in Berlin says. “German relative strength is growing, but this Merkel move says, ‘Don’t worry, this is how Europe has always worked.’ “

Merkel’s inaugural appearance on French TV on Feb. 6 has played against a culturally loaded backdrop: Sarkozy’s Interior minister and confidant, Claude Guéant, told a right-wing student group two days before that “all civilizations are not created equal,” seen as a veiled put-down of Muslims.

The next day, Serge Letchimy, a member of parliament from Martinique, said in the French Assembly, “Mr. Guéant, you are dragging us back to the days of those European ideologies which gave birth to the concentration camps…. The Nazi regime — so worried about purification — was that a civilization?”

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On Avenue Kleber, hydroelectric engineer Jacques Thienan says it is fine for Merkel to support Sarkozy and noted that former Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez was supportive of French Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in 2007.

“No other presidential candidate is proposing a serious way out of this financial catastrophe. I understand that Sarkozy refers to the German model. We always have the impression that things are conducted much more efficiently in Germany, whether in the public or private sectors.”