PARIS (AFP) - By hosting two contenders to succeed Dr Angela Merkel as chancellor this week, President Emmanuel Macron has shown how France is anxiously eyeing the outcome of Germany's election and its effect on a partnership crucial to Europe's future.
Mr Macron held talks on Monday (Sept 6) with German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the left-wing SPD, who is ahead in the polls, and on Wednesday, met Mr Armin Laschet of Dr Merkel's conservative CDU party, who is lagging after a campaign marred by gaffes.
While the Elysee talks are held behind closed doors with no joint statements to the press, the choreography and timing of both meetings have sparked intense speculation in Germany over who Paris may be backing or predicting to win.
Mr Macron hosted Mr Scholz a full two days before meeting Dr Merkel's anointed successor Laschet, while he is holding no meeting at all with the Greens contender Annalena Baerbock, who at one stage was seen as a possible future chancellor.
"The visits to Paris give the German electoral campaign an unusually European dimension," said the Die Welt daily.
"The fact that Scholz was the first to be received by Macron may only be by chance, even if the readers of political tea leaves may see it as a secret sign of preference."
'Room to manoeuvre'
The timing of the election and arrival of the new chancellor - possibly only after months of bargaining to form a coalition - is critical for Mr Macron, who will be eager to get down to work with the new leader as Paris takes on the EU presidency in January 2022.
Mr Macron, likely to be seen as the most powerful politician in the EU after the departure of Dr Merkel, wants to use the presidency to push an ambitious economic agenda and his doctrine of strategic autonomy to make Europe less reliant on the United States.
This has become all the more acute following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with the abrupt US pull-out from the country creating a vacuum that Europe is powerless to fill.
"Macron wants to sound out the potential winners to see what room he has for manoeuvre to set out the French programme for the EU presidency," said Professor Helene Miard-Lacroix, a specialist on Franco-German relations at the Sorbonne university in Paris.
After his talks with Mr Macron, Mr Scholz singled out France as Germany's key partner in strengthening European sovereignty in a changing world.
"Together with France, we must ensure that Europe now treads this path to sovereignty for our future."
While Mr Macron has enjoyed cordial relations with Dr Merkel, there have, on occasions, been tensions over German budgetary rigidity and Paris is hoping for a more flexible approach if Mr Scholz wins the race.
France's Le Monde daily said Mr Scholz had signalled to Paris "that he wants to do as chancellor what he was not able to do as vice-chancellor".
Speaking after his meeting with Mr Macron on Wednesday, Mr Laschet called for Europe to boost its joint intelligence gathering, saying the continent needed a "European FBI".
The absence of the Greens candidate Baerbock from the guest list is striking although a French presidential official, who asked not to be named, said this was simply because she had not requested a meeting.
'Fit to be chancellor'
Hosting election candidates for talks ahead of a poll is part and parcel of diplomatic protocol.
But such meetings do also serve to send clear signals. In the run-up to France's 2017 polls, Dr Merkel met both right-wing candidate Francois Fillon and centrist Macron, but not far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
In 2012, Dr Merkel did not meet the Socialist Francois Hollande, who went on to win the presidency, instead throwing her support behind his rival Nicolas Sarkozy.
But such is Mr Macron's stature on the European stage that German politicians are aware that a photo opportunity with him can do their aspirations no harm.
"Olaf Scholz and Armin Laschet are both aware that a trip to France - Germany's most important partner in the EU - cannot hurt during the election campaign," said Der Tagesspiegel.
"An appearance alongside French President Emmanuel Macron can show you are fit to be chancellor."