For Emmanuel Macron, she was the indispensable partner. So Angela Merkel’s decision to stand down now as CDU party leader and as chancellor in 2021 has forced the French president to rapidly reassess prospects for a critical relationship with Berlin.
Mr Macron is a convinced pro-European with an ambitious agenda to revitalise the EU and fend off the populist threat. Since coming to power in 2017, he has set out to make France once again a reliable and credible partner for Germany in the hope that Berlin will back his reform ideas. But soon he could be dealing with a German chancellor who is less accommodating than Ms Merkel.
For the moment, Mr Macron is reduced to the role of bystander to German political developments that could shape the future of Europe — a position often held by European leaders during a decade of EU decision-making dominated by Ms Merkel.
With Britain preparing to leave the EU, a Eurosceptic Italian government at loggerheads with Brussels over its budget and a weak government in Spain, Mr Macron is dependent on Berlin for furthering his EU agenda.
On the face of it, Mrs Merkel’s forthcoming retirement and her diminished political authority are a setback for the French president’s European plans.
An already dysfunctional grand coalition will now be further distracted by a contest for the CDU leadership of Ms Merkel’s CDU party, with a vote on December 7-8. Then there is a potentially difficult cohabitation between a new party leader and a lame duck chancellor. The CDU’s choice could in turn prompt the fractious Social Democrats to pull out of the grand coalition, potentially triggering elections.
“For Europe this is not good news,” said Alain Lamassoure, a French centre-right member of the European Parliament. “This risk is that for the rest of the German parliamentary term we have a Germany that is more or less paralysed.”
French officials concede that Ms Merkel’s announcements have injected further uncertainty, but say her grip on power had already weakened during the difficult formation of a new coalition and a series of spats between its parties over the summer. “This is not a game changer,” said one.
“Macron has surely known about Merkel’s departure for some time,” said Pascal Lamy, a former European commissioner. “The bad news for him came when she started drowning so early on in her last term in office.”
Paris is still hoping for progress from Berlin on measures to bolster the eurozone, arguing now is the time to fix the flaws in monetary union before the next crisis hits. The bloc’s leaders will meet in December just a few days after the CDU congress. It will be an early test of the chancellor’s willingness to grant any further concessions.
At a summit in Meseberg in June, the French and German leaders agreed to make further progress towards banking union and to set up a eurozone budget by 2021 to invest in skills and innovation. They also agreed to “examine the issue of a European Unemployment Stabilization Fund, for the case of severe economic crises, without transfers”. These fall well short of French proposals for a counter-cyclical measure to help a eurozone member in a crisis.
Even a modest reinsurance scheme for national unemployment funds, which would provide loans (but not transfers) to countries to cope with a jobless surge, put forward by Olaf Scholz, Germany’s centre-left finance minister, was shot down by his conservative coalition partners.
Mrs Merkel’s successor may not have her European instinct or experience but that does not necessarily mean they will be more hostile to Mr Macron’s ideas.
Friedrich Merz, one of three candidates for the CDU leadership, said on Wednesday he was “actually quite concerned about the lack of a [German] response to Emmanuel Macron’s proposals. I think he deserved more. He should have got a more substantive answer.”
Mr Lamy said Mr Merz “would not be bad news” for France, describing him as a “pro-European of the Helmut Kohl era”.
Some officials in Paris also see the resurgent Greens as a pro-European counterweight to the conservatives.
“There will be a changing of the guard,” said one. “We hope that Germany will stay pro-European. Ultimately it is in their interests to do so. We are not concerned about that.”
With European parliamentary elections due in May, some Macron allies reckon France now has a chance to forge a coalition of pro-Europeans across the union with a more ambitious programme on the environment, social policy as well as eurozone reform — uninhibited by the fear of offending Ms Merkel.
“We have to see this as an opportunity to push for a new dynamic in Europe,” said Aurélien Taché, an MP for Mr Macron’s La République en marche party. “In any case, we have no other choice.”
But with Mr Macron himself in political difficulty at home — and reportedly suffering from exhaustion, requiring four days of rest — filling Ms Merkel’s shoes may be a tall order.
For Isabelle Bourgeois, editor of the website tandem-europe.eu and an expert on Franco-German relations, Ms Merkel’s announcements this week will make little difference to French influence.
“The power of Angela Merkel in Europe comes from Germany’s economic success and her capacity to manage complex EU questions. France has not yet shown it has that power. Emmanuel Macron is only just getting started with reforms in France. This is really the key to understanding how Germany sees his ideas for Europe. They are interesting, but it is way too early.”