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Hollande seeks to show Merkel he is still in charge on Berlin visit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel with President François Hollande
German Chancellor Angela Merkel with President François Hollande Reuters/Pascal Rossignol

French President François Hollande was in Berlin on Tuesday for one of his regular summits with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, keen to reassure her that, despite Sunday’s severe electoral defeat, his Socialist government will pursue reforms designed to improve French competitivity.

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Prime Minister Manuel Valls was supposed to join the talks in Berlin.

It’s a measure of the scale of annoyance within the Socialist Party that Valls cancelled his trip to Berlin to meet instead with Socialist MPs, including the “frondeurs” - the rebels who are loudly opposed to the line of reforms which find so much favour with Merkel.

Click for RFI reports of the Charlie Hebdo killings

Hollande has already made clear that there will be no change in the government’s direction, pointing out that the overall vote in France indicates a swing to the right and that the Socialist rebels and Greens, who advocate less fiscal rigour, more stress on boosting spending, did not score highly in the polls.

Aside from economic matters, Merkel and Hollande were to discuss various investment programmes, the Iran nuclear talks and the conflict in Ukraine.

Close observers of the Franco-German alliance have noted a new warmth in the relationship between Hollande and Merkel.

The relationship between the two biggest players in the European Union is valuable to both countries. While Britain remains outside the eurozone it can never replace either country in the key partnership in the EU.

As such, the Franco-German partnership has been fundamental to Paris and Berlin since the creation of the EU’s predecessor in 1956 but it does experience highs and lows.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy formed an unexpectedly effective relationship with Merkel, forged over late-night crisis meetings as the euro seemed close to collapse in 2008-09.

Merkel more or less openly supported Sarkozy in his reelection bid in 2012 and when Hollande won the presidency she was reported to be a little disconcerted.

He favoured trying to boost growth in Europe, she prioritised budgetary rigour.

But nearly three years on, they now have a much closer relationship.

One of Hollande’s advisors comments in Tuesday’s Le Figaro that “they work well together”.

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When they recently worked together to get all sides to agree a peace deal on Ukraine, the advisor said, “it was a real test of their closeness. There were several occasions when the Germans could have been disloyal to France, but [their partnership] worked perfectly. The episode cemented their relationship.”

The same advisor said Hollande in return took care not to undermine Germany’s position during recent talks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

Two recent tragedies have also affected the leaders' relationship.

After January's Charlie Hebdo attacks, Merkel was unequivocal in her expression of support.

“François, whatever you decide, we will be there,” she declared.

Days later on the solidarity march in Paris, photos of her with her head on Hollande’s shoulder flashed round the world.

They shared another emotional moment last week when they surveyed the scene of the Airbus 320 crash in the French Alps from a helicopter last week.

Claire Demesmay, a specialist in European relations at the DGAP Foundation, a thinktank in Berlin, remarks that “the Franco-German relationship is nurtured by images”.

One such photo, showing former leaders François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl hand in hand at Verdun where so many soldiers from both France and Germany had died in the  World War I, has become an iconic representation of peace.

In the Franco-German relationship, says French Senator Jean Bizet who was in Berlin on the day of the march, “a picture is worth all the speeches in the world”.

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