By ANGELA CHARLTON and JUERGEN BAETZ, Associated Press
PARIS (AP) — France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has yet to announce if he'll seek a second term, but he already has a big-name campaign backer lined up — the leader of neighboring Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is openly stumping for Sarkozy, departing from long-held practice and blurring Europe's political borders just as the two leaders are trying to meld together the economies that use the euro to save the currency from catastrophe.
"I support Nicolas Sarkozy on all fronts," Merkel told reporters Monday in Paris. Merkel's CDU party says she will support Sarkozy's eventual campaign with joint appearances.
Her chummy meeting with the French president Monday appeared aimed at assuring observers that the cross-Rhine "Merkozy" relationship — forged during the debt crisis that has strained Europe and markets worldwide — is as solid as ever.
Merkel's backing for fellow conservative Sarkozy may backfire, however. For all their leaders' talk of continental unity, polls suggest most European voters still see themselves as Greek or Irish before they see themselves as European. And the unpopular Sarkozy's chief challengers say French politics should stay French.
Merkel's strategy is at least in part self-serving: If Sarkozy loses elections in April and May, his successor may scrap a pact imposing greater fiscal discipline across the continent that the two leaders have struggled to craft and persuade other European Union members to accept.
"It's about the big responsibility we have, the construction of Europe. We are surrounded by competitors, we have to show them that we are capable, that France and Germany together within Europe can make all of Europe successful," Merkel said in a joint interview Monday with Sarkozy on public broadcasters France-2 and ZDF television.
The cross-border campaigning reflects a more concerted effort toward the erosion of national sovereignty that leaders like Merkel see as the way for debt-laden Europe to survive in a world increasingly dominated by Asian economic powers such as China.
"We have gone through such a huge crisis, on the brink of collapse ... now we are looking to each other in a different way than before," EU President Herman Van Rompuy said Monday night in Berlin.
"What we are currently going through is ... the Europeanization of national political life," he added.
The EU is a 27-country bloc with an array of national languages and traditions that started as a trade bloc. Bridging its political borders could be a step toward turning it into something that looks more like a United States of Europe.
While U.S. politicians cross state lines and regularly campaign for each other, European leaders generally practice careful neutrality when talking of their neighbors' political campaigns. Memories of past cross-border invasions still surface when talk arises of meddling in your neighbor's political affairs.
The turmoil of the past several months has shaken up those rules of neutrality.
Merkel and Sarkozy banded together in November to pressure Greece's then-Prime Minister George Papandreou to abandon a referendum on an international bailout package seen as crucial to Europe's financial stability.
"Merkozy" then turned their sights on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose much bigger economy and debts were threatening even greater peril to the shared euro.
Within weeks, both Berlusconi and Papandreou were out of office.
"That is what is called peer pressure," Van Rompuy said. "If something goes wrong in one country, it affects us all."
But Sarkozy has had a hard time convincing voters in France — a nation deeply attached to its historical and cultural glories, and its sense of Frenchness — that surrendering national sovereignty to European unity is a good idea. It's even harder now that the country's facing a new recession that many blame on the whimsies of global financial markets.
Sarkozy keeps trying to make the argument.
"Economically we are stronger with 450 million Europeans than alone, when we are 65 million Frenchmen or 80 million Germans," Sarkozy said in the joint interview with Merkel.