After 'Merkozy', Berlin braces for 'Merkhollande'

Germany's Angela Merkel will be forced to forge consensus with French president-elect Francois Hollande, despite pulling for his rival, say analysts, who think their rapport might be warmer than expected.

Merkel had formed such a close relationship with Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy as they tackled the euro crisis together that the pair was dubbed 'Merkozy' and the German chancellor even offered to campaign for him in France.

Polls show that the German public too backed Sarkozy to be the next president, stung by Hollande's criticism of Merkel's crisis-fighting strategy and unnerved by his insistence on growth over austerity to beat the turmoil.

But diplomats in Berlin say there have been several clear-the-air meetings between the two camps and that Hollande's criticism of Merkel was "misunderstood".

For her part, Merkel has vowed to work well with whichever Frenchman won the vote and has shifted her crisis rhetoric towards more growth while continuing her insistence on austerity.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle continued Germany's bid to bring Hollande on board by saying on the eve of the vote the two neighbours would "quickly get to work on adding a growth pact to the fiscal treaty to promote competitiveness."

Meanwhile, Hollande's spokesman Pierre Moscovici also sought to calm the waters, telling the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily: "We know that Angela Merkel would prefer to see Nicolas Sarkozy win."

But if Hollande wins "we want to show that nothing will shake the Franco-German friendship", he said.

As an example of this, Hollande has repeatedly stressed that his first foreign visit will be across the Rhine to Europe's powerhouse and a close advisor said he would likely contact Merkel on the evening of his victory.

"The fear of Hollande is diminishing in Berlin," concluded the respected Sueddeutsche Zeitung ahead of Sunday's election.

And several commentators in Germany note that Merkel and Hollande share a more similar personality and style than the chancellor and Sarkozy, who took a while to forge a close relationship.

"They have the same way of preparing decisions by means of long discussions," said a French diplomat. "Hollande's personality might rather suit" Merkel's, he added.

Hollande has set himself up as a "normal person" -- the antithesis to Sarkozy with his former supermodel wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who has been dubbed the "bling-bling president" in the press.

Merkel too generally shuns the limelight, despite regularly being nominated the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine, and was recently snapped shopping alone in a Berlin supermarket.

"Hollande won't surprise Merkel with unforeseen ideas ... he is much more predictable," judged the German business daily Handelsblatt.

Indeed, Merkel's desire to see Sarkozy win a second term may stem less from a natural affinity with him than a hope to prevent her social democrat rivals receive a tail-wind from his success, analysts say.

"The chancellor has nothing against Hollande personally. If she was gunning for a Sarkozy re-election, it was for domestic political reasons," one Berlin-based diplomat said.

"A socialist win could give great hope to the SPD" centre-left opposition party, ahead of a critical regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia on May 13.

Another analyst, Ulrike Guerot, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Merkel and Sarkozy were forced into a marriage of convenience by the financial crisis.

"Did Merkel actually like Sarkozy? I don't think so," she said.

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