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France's Francois Hollande, Germany's Merkel hold cordial meeting

The newly inaugurated French president visited the German chancellor. There were no fireworks despite differences over Europe's debt crisis, but there was a lightning strike.

May 15, 2012|By Kim Willsher, Los Angeles Times
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met in Berlin. "We have quite an intensive agenda in terms of European questions," she said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande… (John MacDougall, AFP/GettyImages )

PARIS — France's new president, Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have opposing ideas of how to solve Europe's crippling public debt crisis — she austerity, he spending and growth — so a clash was in the cards Tuesday.

Instead, Hollande's welcome to Berlin just hours after he took office was brisk but warm, even if he was late for dinner. Hollande — whose initial flight to Berlin was hit by lightning, causing him to briefly return to an air base outside Paris to switch planes — and Merkel met for an hour before dining together.

Last week, Hollande, 57, defeated incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on a promise to renegotiate Merkel's prized pact enshrining public spending limits throughout the European Union. He believes in spending and investment to encourage growth.

Observers described the atmosphere at the Berlin meeting as cordial but awkward.

At an after-dinner news conference, Merkel joked that the lightning strike, which did not cause any injuries, was a good omen for their future relationship.

"We have quite an intensive agenda in terms of European questions," she said.

The two leaders said they had talked about Greece and reiterated their hope that the financially stricken country will remain in the Eurozone, the 17-nation group that uses the euro.

Hollande spoke of "balance in the Franco-German relationship" and brought up the thorny subject of renegotiating the fiscal pact to encourage growth.

Earlier, Hollande, nicknamed Monsieur Normal, was inaugurated as the 24th president of France at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

The first Socialist leader of the country in 17 years arrived for his swearing-in just in time after crossing Paris by car, stopping at traffic lights en route and even waiting in a traffic jam.

"On this day I am invested with the highest office of state, I send the French a message of confidence. We are a great country which throughout its history has risen to difficulties and challenges," Hollande said.

"My job is to put France back on its feet with justice, to open a new way in Europe, contribute to the peace of the world and the preservation of the planet," Hollande said, despite "massive debt, weak growth, high unemployment … a Europe that is having difficulty emerging from the crisis."

The mantra of the Hollande government, he said, would be "dignity, simplicity and sobriety."

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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