Economic Crisis Brings Sarkozy and Merkel Closer

For all the destructive power of the economic crisis, there's one bridge it's rebuilding: Franco-German relations. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are making good on their promise to present a united front against the financial fallout. In a joint letter to the EU presidency last week, the leaders asserted that regulation and fiscal discipline would be their priorities, not new stimulus measures—a position at odds with the U.S. Meanwhile, Berlin gave Sarkozy the green light to cut the value-added tax on restaurant meals, after years of French pleading. The pair will cohost April's NATO summit, with Sarkozy describing his decision to rejoin the allied command as a "great element of the Franco-German friendship." "It's a courageous decision," Merkel gushed back. "We are delighted."

The friendly transition has been relatively swift for two heads of state whose relations have often been strained. For the better part of two years, the chancellor has played straight foil to Sarkozy's showman. Just weeks after his election, Sarkozy irked Berlin by hoarding credit for the revised EU constitution, even as Germany held the EU presidency. Then came the Mediterranean Union project, which excluded Germany and got one of Sarkozy's advisers heckled in Berlin (the president later backpedaled). Sarkozy has often created tension by railing against the European Central Bank and the strong euro. When the crisis took hold in November, the president criticized Merkel's stance on economic stimulus and scoffed, "France is working on it; Germany is thinking about it."

Paris and Berlin's new tone is noteworthy because Sarkozy has always seemed more keen to court Britain than Germany. He's been known to deem the Franco-German axis "insufficient" and has played up his visits to U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown. But now with the City forcing Brown's hand in the crisis, Britain is looking less like a serviceable ally to French interests. At the same time, French and German viewpoints on the economic crisis are finally converging. Berlin criticized French car bailouts only last month, but with General Motors' German subsidiary, Opel, in trouble, Merkel has had to soften her line.

Experts have long expected Sarkozy to warm to the old Franco-German axis. Historically, French presidents are slow to realize how much they need Germany—but they eventually come around. Whether Sarkozy and Merkel's rapprochement will outlast the crisis remains an open question. But there's talk that they plan to appear together at campaign events in both countries ahead of June's European legislative ballot. Let's hope the comedy routine is out.