Merkel will welcome Hollande 'with open arms'

By Marcel F├╝rstenau

While Germany's opposition hopes the French Socialist victory will reflect poorly on European policies on the debt crisis and on Berlin, Angela Merkel insists on a continuation of the current course.

Angela Merkel and French President-elect Francois Hollande intend to work together "well and intensively." That was the German chancellor's summary after a phone conversation she had with Hollande 'congratulating him on his election victory. It is no secret that Germany's conservative head of state would have preferred Nicolas Sarkozy to win over Hollande. But just after the result was out, Merkel said that she would meet for talks with the new French president soon.

She hopes to welcome Hollande "with open arms," adding that Franco-German cooperation is "essential for Europe." But she also made clear that she was not open to renegotiating the EU fiscal pact, though Hollande promised during campaigning to change the terms of that agreement.

The chancellor stressed that this week's elections did not mean that the terms of the EU's response to the sovereign debt crisis were up for renegotiation.

"Then we wouldn't be able to work in Europe," Merkel warned. She reminded reporters how her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), had been opposed to Turkey's EU membership plans back when the CDU was in the opposition. But since Merkel's party took power, the chancellor noted, the CDU has pursued continuity in line with the former government's foreign policy.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle stressed the importance of the Franco-German partnership, which he described as "crucial" to unifying Europe. Now that Brussels has decided on the EU fiscal pact to reduce debt, the task at hand is to bolster growth and competitiveness, Westerwelle said in Berlin. He expressed his confidence that governments would arrive at "a sound agreement." Creating more jobs had been one of Hollande's main election promises which in the end saw him triumph over outgoing President Sarkozy.
The opposition applauds

Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) greeted the victory of Socialist Hollande with applause. Party chairman Sigmar Gabriel said he hoped the end of the Sarkozy era would change more than just France. The fact that Germany's neighbor is now to be governed by a socialist would help "to steer Europe in a different direction." Merkel and Sarkozy had led the EU deeper into the crisis, Gabriel argued in Berlin, adding that their course was starting to affect German companies as they could "no longer sell products in Europe."

Germany's Left Party also has its hopes pinned on the new president. Hollande was a candidate with a "clear leftist profile," party head Klaus Ernst said in Berlin. Hollande's promises of higher taxes for the rich, no cuts to social services and a renegotiation of the EU fiscal pact all reflect the Left Party's agenda. However, in Sunday's state election in Germany's northern Schleswig-Holstein, Ernst's party failed to win over voters and did not make it into parliament. On May 13, the party will face the electorate in another crucial vote in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Germany's Green Party - also currently in the opposition - were delighted by the election outcome in France. It was important to depart from the "strict plan of saving," party chair Claudia Roth said. She noted that budgets needed to be balanced but stressed that there should be programs triggering growth and more employment.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel brushed aside insistence from the opposition that Hollande's victory reflects poorly on EU policies. She said the central point remains finding ways to stimulate growth while also cutting down on debt levels. There are suggestions on how to achieve that within the EU, and those suggestions are based on a Franco-German initiative, she said.

Thus far, her partner on solving the sovereign debt problem has been Nicolas Sarkozy. The contours of her political relationship with Francois Hollande will only begin to take shape in the weeks ahead.