German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) poses with other women takeing part in festivities to mark the 100th anniversary of the introduction of voting rights for women in Germany, on November 12, 2018 at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. Image Credit: AFP

BERLIN: German leader Angela Merkel and her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron have had their ups and downs. Both of them have respectively been declared the new “leader of the free world” after President Barack Obama stepped down. Both are in domestic trouble.

And, according to one old lady, they could very well be a couple.

“Mr Macron, it’s not possible, a little good woman like me to shake hands with the President of the Republic, it’s fantastic,” the 100-year-old woman told Macron on the sidelines of a First World War commemorative event. The excited lady then turned to Merkel, arguably the world’s most powerful woman.

“You are Madame Macron,” the smiling centenarian said to Merkel, 64, confusing her with Macron’s wife Brigitte Macron, who is 65, according to France’s public broadcaster and Belgian television.

With an unmistakably German accent, an amused Merkel clarified in French multiple times: “I am the German chancellor.”

“It’s fantastic,” the 100-year-old lady responded.

Under different circumstances, mistaking a female world leader for the wife of her male counterpart would be yet another example for the persistence of gender stereotypes. But reactions to Sunday’s remarkable exchange were overwhelmingly positive. To a woman who was born toward the end of the first devastating World War and who was a young woman when the Germans launched the second one, the Franco-German unity on display would have been completely unimaginable to her younger self.

More than 30 million people were killed during the First World War. Only two decades later, 40 more million became victims of the Second World War, with half of them estimated to have been civilians. Postwar divisions impacted Franco-German relations early on, as more mass graves were discovered and trials uncovered the full horrors of Nazi occupation.

But during the second half of the 20th century, an understanding emerged between France and Germany that both nations were both geographically and politically tied together. That sentiment later helped establish the European Union, a project originally designed to preserve peace in Europe but now a far more expansive economic and political endeavour.

As that union is now under unprecedented pressure from both the inside and outside, Macron and Merkel are seen as its most powerful protectors. On Sunday, Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party caused a stir when it suggested that Merkel should have refrained from attending the show of postwar unity in Paris over the weekend because it didn’t win the war. Meanwhile, approval ratings for Macron are dropping, as populists on the left and right are gaining new momentum.

But both Macron and Merkel have struggled to confront those challengers. Merkel will step down from her party’s position in December to appease her party base disgruntled with low poll ratings, with some expecting her resignation as German leader only months away. Macron’s ambitious plans to reform the EU have stalled amid Germany’s domestic woes and his own challenges at home. And then, of course, there’s Brexit and a US president who didn’t seem particularly moved by the show of unity that was on display over the weekend.

An optimistic interpretation of Sunday’s rare moment of unity, standing besides a witness of two World Wars, would be that the experience of those conflicts paved the way for a political project that has been powerful enough to withstand mounting polarisation, at least so far.

It’s unclear if the Merkel-Macron alliance will survive intact or how long it can last. As Merkel and Macron held hands this weekend, some sensed not only unity but also melancholy, with Merkel facing an uncertain future in German politics.

The “old demons,” Macron later said, referring to nationalism and conflict, could easily come “back to wreak chaos and death.” With the memory of two World Wars slowly fading and most witnesses already dead, Macron’s supporters say, conflicts might be becoming more likely once again.

In the case of the 100-year-old lady at least, optimism prevailed on Saturday.

“I’ll be here next year,” she said, addressing Macron.

“Me, too,” Macron responded.