Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was back in the German Chancellery for an hour meet with his longtime ideological ally Angela Merkel on Friday, an unusually lengthy, formal (and public, with photos released to the press) display of unity given that Sarkozy holds no official powers and has supposedly withdrawn from political life. Reuters dubbed the pow-wow a “slight” to Sarkozy’s successor Francois Hollande, what with Merkel having memorably refused to meet with him when the Socialist pol was merely a candidate back in 2012. Perhaps more important than the symbolism of the alleged snub is the fact that Hollande sports historically low approval numbers, and the outing in Berlin, where Sarkozy also gave a speech on the Ukraine crisis, the future of the eurozone, and other issues of the day, is clearly the act of a candidate-in-waiting.
VISUAL CONTEXT: The French economy has struggled for years, beginning in the run-up to the spring 2012 election campaign that ousted Sarkozy.
The challenge for Sarkozy — besides the rhetorical hijinks of backtracking on what seemed at the time to be a definitive vow to stay out of public life upon his crushing defeat — remains the 7-year French presidential term. No matter how high he’s riding this week, or how low Hollande falls, years remain for the incumbent to turn things (namely, the economy and unemployment) around. And lest we forget, there was a genuine appetite for an alternative to Merkel’s economic approach when Sarkozy was ousted, unemployment having already begun its surge and contributing to his defeat. Sarkozy, then, needs to find a way to distance himself from the most orthodox pieces of Merkel’s austerity mantra, or at least trumpet a few measures on which he diverges and wants special attention paid to French economic woes, a bit of protectionist sentiment, perhaps. A carbon-copy of his previous political image could prove distasteful to the center of the electorate, as passionately as his right-wing base in the UMP adored him (and they still do).
Of course, that Merkel went out of her way to receive Sarkozy in style is sure to add to pre-existing tension between her and Hollande, who desperately needs to rehab his image as a dithering technocrat. The gauntlet has certainly been thrown, Merkel basically suggesting there is a French shadow government that she will deal with as the real one struggles. So what Hollande does in the next couple of weeks to demonstrate resolve and reassert himself will tell us a lot about whether he has the requisite fight in him to overcome Europe’s prom king and queen.