It is one of the world's great political alliances, the strange bond known as Merkozy. But as French president Nicolas Sarkozy's re-election odyssey takes him deep into far-right, anti-Europe territory this week – to the alarm of his German counterpart Angela Merkel – it feels like those bonds are close to breaking.
On Monday, many Europeans were reeling from a fiery speech Mr. Sarkozy gave in Paris the previous night in which he promoted trade protectionism, and attacked immigration and Islam. Most alarmingly to Germans, he threatened to cancel one of the key planks of European unification, the Schengen Treaty which eliminates borders and allows free movement of goods and people between 26 countries.
It sounded as if Mr. Sarkozy, who is lagging behind his left-wing opponents in the polls, had turned into Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the borderline-fascist National Front, a once-taboo party that currently commands 17 per cent in the polls. Or, even more disturbing to many French and German observers, that he had turned into David Cameron.
"I had the impression I was listening not to a French president … but almost to a Conservative British Prime Minister," said Mr. Sarkozy's chief opponent, Socialist Party Leader François Hollande. Britain's rejection of the euro and the Schengen Treaty, and the Tories' skepticism toward the EU, have made them anathema to both the left and the right on the continent.
Of course, Mr. Hollande, who had been considered a centre-left moderate, has also been flirting with extremes in the runup to the April 22 first-round election. He has made speeches in which he has advocated a 75-per-cent top tax rate and said he would renegotiate the EU's fiscal pact, which places limits on the debt and spending abilities of member governments – all in an apparent bid to capture votes from several parties on the far left.
That, too would wreak havoc on European unity. But Mr. Hollande has not formed a pact with another European leader so tight that their last names have merged.
It appeared that Ms. Merkel, a stalwart supporter of a unified Europe, an outspoken opponent of trade protectionism and a moderate on immigration, was not amused.
Her spokesman, Georg Streiter, responded to Mr. Sarkozy's speech with a few tart words in defence of the Schengen Treaty. "Free movement of people is one of the most concrete and important achievements of European integration and represents a fundamental freedom," he said on Monday.
But behind the cries of alarm was a stronger sense that little of it meant anything. Both French and German observers said they didn't believe Mr. Sarkozy has any intention of carrying out his new promises – and that his dishonesty would be his most welcome quality.
French observers shrugged this off as the inevitable rhetoric of modern France, where the two biggest parties face greater challenges from the semi-fascist right and the neo-communist left than they do from one another. Rather than swinging to the centre, as North American parties do during campaigns, they tend to imitate their more extreme competitors.
"Look, he's fishing on the right, and it's a fair replica of what Hollande is doing on the left," said Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, a specialist in European politics at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. "I think both candidates currently are trying to get as many votes as possible from their extreme side – each of them is over-emphasizing his party's extremist flank. Between the first and second rounds, they'll start going after more centrist voters."
Germans, who have had worries about Mr. Sarkozy's positions all along, were more cautious in their assessments of the new policy. They, too, hope that Mr. Sarkozy is not an honest politician.
"The real question is, is he going to go further and deeper with this approach, will it unfold into real policy, is Sarkozy making real promises now, or is it really just tactics," asked Ulrike Guerot, a senior research fellow with the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations.
"If it is real, then Merkel probably has no interest in continuing with Merkozy – because that's certainly not what Merkel wants to hear and stand for."
One reason for calm is that it is extremely difficult for a head of state to change European policy, which generally requires approval of all 27 member states and referendums in several of them.
"I don't know if people really believe in the renegotiation capacity of a head of state," said Ms. Guerot. " I cannot imagine that 30 years after European integration, France would suddenly opt for marginalization and shutting down the borders for goods and for people. We hope it's just a tactic and a manoeuvre."