During her farewell tour, where she met European heads of state and government, Angela Merkel went to see Queen Elizabeth II. The few filmed minutes of his arrival in Windsor are irresistible. On the one hand, the Queen of England, in a green floral dress and her smile controlled by centuries of code and tradition. On the other, a seemingly shy woman in purple pants and jacket, nodding her head too many times and trying to follow the correct rituals to greet a monarch. Elizabeth and Angela: two opposite worlds, two completely different roles, and yet with similarities. Like the boring speeches that no one dares to make anymore. Or that style, that calm, that stability and that way of representing their countries.
Today Merkel represents more than Germany: she represents Europe. It is a pop icon that has entered our minds as a catchy song. Mugs, T-shirts and even juicers with his image are sold. But its rise and durability remain a mystery. How could this woman, so strangely indifferent to the trappings of power, take control of a party run for half a century by conservative men and then be elected four times in a row to lead one of the world’s great powers? How did he become such a role model to such an extent that a schoolboy once asked him, in all innocence, “Can a child also be Chancellor?”
For years, I have watched Merkel, written about it, and most recently made a movie about her. It has not been about blind admiration but rather fascination: because the first female chancellor in Germany, who led the most powerful economy in Europe for 16 years, came from a country that no longer exists. We hardly remember its name, or we reduce it to its three initials: RDA. What other world leader can claim such an extraordinary background?
Merkel is retiring from the German Chancellery after having spent more than half her life under a dictatorship of the Soviet bloc, in a country separated from its western half and excluded from the “free world”. How could it not be radically different? She has already lived two lives: one before and one after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The most common criticism of Merkel is that she has “done nothing.” Which, unlike its predecessors, does not leave its mark on history. Konrad Adenauer integrated West Germany into the international community and helped lay the foundations of today’s European Union. Helmut Kohl brought about the reunification of Germany and subsumed the German mark to the single European currency. Gerhard Schröder undertook brutal and unpopular labor reforms to make Germany competitive. So what has Merkel done for posterity? He has no major renovations to his credit. But his political record, along with his two lives, has two faces: it can be interpreted both ways.
The right moment
He entered politics from one moment to the next, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. An ordinary chemistry, lacking in charisma, speaking skills, political savvy, or even a particular show. And at 35 he found himself, by chance in history, in the right place at the right time. He knew what to do with it.
Merkel came to power when 9/11 still cast a long shadow over the West. An uninterrupted series of European and global crises followed. An ambitious reform was not in his genes, and, fortunately, it was not the priority that his time demanded. Merkel proved to be more of an administrator than a visionary.
Yet in addition to dealing with every crisis that came her way, Merkel – aided by Schröder’s reforms, which she had the foresight to support while the leader of the opposition – restored German prosperity. Under Merkel, Germany also softened its image: from austere and unappealing to pleasant. For 16 years, Merkel has made Germany happy. The first secret to staying in power for so long is that he has been in complete harmony with his country and his time. You were in the right place at the right time.
The second critic says that she is more German than European. Bottom line: a selfish, self-centered leader. The criticism comes, in particular, from France – a country that professes to prefer the romantic ideas of “fraternity” and “solidarity” to the boring realism of German budget discipline – and the German government’s habit of insisting on respecting the letter. the treaties that unite us.
But was it selfish to save European honor by hosting more than a million refugees, whom other leaders, particularly the French, pretended not to see?
Despite being the leader of the richest country in the EU – as well as the largest contributor to its budget – Merkel lacked the audacity required to take the European Union further. It has driven more than one French president crazy and exhausted four of them (Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron) by failing to respond firmly to the 2008 financial crisis, preferring instead to impose a parsimony that almost suffocates the Greek population. and it came at a high cost to Europe. He overreacted German economic nationalism and engaged in democratic mercantilism with Russia and China. For a long time, he opposed Emmanuel Macron’s wish to mutualise European debt, a taboo for Germany.
But who finally managed to get Germany to agree to support a massive post-COVID-19 recovery plan in Europe? After all, it was Merkel who led Germany to her own European revolution. In an interview with Macron for my book on Merkel, I asked the president if, as a French official had told me, his desire to be remembered for his ambitious European projects had ever exasperated the more pragmatic chancellor.
Macron admitted that he and Merkel came from “different mental universes” but that, although she had taken more time to think about the proposals and had faced immense limitations, in the end she came to support the same goals: “I believe that the things that we achieve together in Europe they were exactly what she wanted. ”
Macron, despite an awkward start, became his favorite French president because they are both, in their own way, political UFOs, neither left nor right. Merkelism, like macronism, consists of the skillful stunt of reconciling opposites.
Merkel’s mistakes, failures, failures and inflexibilities have, at times, taken a heavy toll on Europe. His departure is a turning point: it leaves Germany with many challenges ahead, mainly the climate crisis, and with the opportunity to start a new chapter in its history.
So why will I miss her? Because both his mistakes and his qualities have been, in my opinion, guided by his moral compass. Morale ended the career of Kohl, his former CDU mentor, in 1999 after he had marred the party with scandals. Morale about the decades of corruption and tax evasion in Greece made it excessively rigid during the euro crisis. And morality made her murmur the three words “Wir schaffen das”(” We can do it “or” we will do it “) when he asked his country to receive a million refugees.
Her experience of life in the “country that no longer exists” made her appreciate the values of which she was deprived: freedom (including that of refugees), concern for unity and unconditional respect for her opponents, whether in the German Parliament, in Eastern Europe or across the English Channel.
His low-key style and flat speeches are the antithesis of the populist politics reinvented by Donald Trump and the Brexit ideologues. Merkel often changed her mind, but she never made a false promise, because she never promised anything. For her, the function of words is to describe reality. Despite her diplomatic stunts, her reliance on tactics, and even her mediocrity, Merkel is the anti-Trump, the anti-Johnson, the anti-populist. His morale as a leader is what I will miss.
With Merkel, the CDU has dominated German politics for the past 16 years. With the end of his era, the party acknowledges its defeat. But no matter what form the incoming coalition takes, German democracy will remain rock solid and Germany will remain anchored in Europe. However, for Europe and for a turbulent and restless world, Merkel’s departure is the loss of a reassuring beacon.
Marion Van Renterghem is the author of C’était Merkel and director of Recherche Merkel desespérément.
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.