European Media Go a Little Overboard Sexing-Up Continental Politics

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Long-staid print and TV political coverage is suddenly taking a more American-style approach to leaders' personal lives.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President François Hollande (Reuters)

European newspapers are managing to treat new French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, two of the most unglamorous figures ever to hold power, more like reality television stars. Sure, folks get excited during elections, no matter what the country. But, in the past few days, there's been a distinctly frivolous tone in how European media covers these candidates, particularly given that the Greek economy appears to be about to go up in smoke.

Monday, The Guardian ran a profile on "France's new power couple," discussing the deliciously romantic details of Hollande's relationship with his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler, for whom he left Ségolène Royal. "When she telephones, 'My love' flashes up on his phone," the piece dishes.

"France, Germany and Hollande -- the new ménage à trois?"

European media have treated this week's big election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, as most important not because Merkel's party got trounced, but because Germans supposedly like the idea of no-nonsense Mom bossing them around, as they put it. The big winner of the election was Social Democrat Hannelore Kraft. Kraft's party and Merkel's have opposing platforms, but that didn't stop the German press, as Der Spiegel noted, from naming Kraft "the new Merkel." German sometime call Merkel "Mutti," or "Mummy," and apparently Kraft has that same sort of spiritual presence. "In her own party, she can be a tough disciplinarian, but most Germans, particularly during the last few years of the euro and debt crises, see Merkel as a comforting presence intent on protecting their prosperity," Der Spiegel suggests. The Süddeutsche Zeitung paper was apparently gushing about Merkel's and Kraft's "gentle treatment of voters." What Freudian fantasy did we slip into here?

On Tuesday, Hollande flew to Germany for a first meeting with the chancellor. The two are often opposed politically, and apparently Merkel and Hollande didn't exchange bisoux -- kisses -- as Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy had once done, but rather shook hands. This isn't an international incident, but apparently it is international drama.

"French president's plane may have been hit by lightning, but there was no spark between him and the German chancellor," The Guardian reported, calling the visit an awkward "first date." Hollande just doesn't know how to treat a woman like Sarkozy did, apparently: the former French president courted Merkel with cases of wine, The Guardian reveals, and "those close to Merkel say the key was that Sarkozy was able to make her laugh."

The British newspaper got going on this topic even before Hollande was elected, with the odd question, "France, Germany and Hollande -- the new ménage à trois?" Someone bring a semantics referee to this orgy: since when do metaphorical threesomes involve not three countries, or three leaders, but rather two countries and a leader? Why is Hollande making hot love to two nation-states while Merkel isn't even in the picture?

The sentimentality isn't limited to English-language reports. "Once upon a time there was François and Angela," began a Proust-laden Le Monde op-ed about the French-German relationship this morning. French paper Le Figaro opted for the vaguely suggestive, "Merkel-Hollande, the secrets of a first rendez-vous" -- equally at home in a supermarket checkout tabloid or a nightmare you share with your therapist.

Even sedate German evening news show Tagesschau has gotten in on the action, announcing after the Merkel-Hollande meeting that "The Chancellor Doesn't Kiss Just Anyone." No, she doesn't. Did anyone think she did?

It's hard to recall a time when such sexy headlines were written about such distinctly unsexy people (and no, that's not a comment on their physiques, though neither is about to win Europe's Next Top Model). Both Merkel and Hollande go out of their way to avoid drama. When Hollande left Ségolène Royal, the mother of his children, for his current partner, she waited until the 2007 election had ended to announce it. When Royal challenged Hollande last year for the Socialist candidacy, the public competition was kept strictly professional, and Royal quickly lent her support to the Hollande campaign once her ex-husband became the official candidate.

Merkel, similarly, is not one to cultivate a cult of personality: it's hard to think of someone who comes off as more all-issues, all-the-time. Yet now we've got two frumpy, somewhat dumpy Europeans with barely enough hair between them for a decent bob cut and we're getting headlines breathlessly announcing that they don't have enough chemistry?

After France's uncharacteristically tawdry stories from the Sarkozy administration, and now this, one begins to wonder: has American-style personality politics jumped across the Atlantic? Just how far will the European media go to introduce some increasingly rare entertainment, as Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal crumble, potentially taking E.U. cohesion with them? Stay tuned for Real 50-Something Politicians of Luxembourg. Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker may have a pristine record, but those are the spectacles of a Casanova, make no mistake.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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