PARIS — Socialist Francois Hollande assumed France's presidency Tuesday, inheriting a country fearful for its financial future and jetting off immediately to Berlin to tackle his most pressing problem: Europe's debt crisis.
A flash of lightning nearly derailed Hollande's blitz diplomatic foray, striking his plane and sending him briefly back to a Paris area military airbase.
But Hollande quickly switched Falcon jets, flew to Berlin, and took steps toward bridging differences with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over how to reinvigorate Europe's economy and its global influence. Right before leaving for Berlin, Hollande named a moderate, German-friendly ally, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as his prime minister.
During a day packed with pomp-filled inaugural traditions, Hollande promised to be less flashy than his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy and bring a more human touch to the Elysee Palace. But he won't have much time to play Mr. Nice Guy as he faces a barrage of challenges, from creating jobs to getting thousands of French troops out of Afghanistan ahead of schedule.
Europe's financial troubles are Hollande's No. 1 priority. He and Merkel have opposing views on whether spending or saving is the best approach.
Hollande said Tuesday investment in growth is crucial to reduce debt and cut deficits, saying he envisions "a balanced and respectful relationship" with Germany.
Merkel, who has argued that indebted European countries need to clean up their budgets before launching new spending sprees, said that her differences with Hollande have been overplayed. And asked whether she was afraid of Hollande's campaign pledges, she replied: "I am seldom afraid."
The two stressed that they want to keep Greece in the 17-nation eurozone that shares the euro currency, and looked ahead to a European Union summit in Brussels next week for further decisions.
The lightning strike marked a startling beginning for Hollande, who promised to be a more "normal" president after five years under Sarkozy, ousted by voters after a single term for his handling of a stagnant economy.
Hollande took off in a Falcon 7X aircraft for Berlin after rain-drenched inaugural events. The plane was hit by lightning just minutes afterward, according to Hollande aides. Warning lights turned red, they said, but Hollande wanted to continue on.
Instead the pilot returned to the Villacoublay air base outside Paris as a precaution, Defense Ministry spokesman Gerard Gachet said. The president and his entourage were transferred to another aircraft, a Falcon 900, and left.
It's not unusual for planes to be struck by lightning when traveling through thunderstorms; often pilots will fly at higher altitudes to go "above the weather" and in most cases land without difficulty. In March, four planes were struck by lightning the same night during heavy storms near Houston, but all landed without incident.
Hollande's trip was a postwar custom for new French leaders to reach out to German counterparts to solidify European unity. While new figures Tuesday showed the eurozone has avoided a new recession, thanks largely to Germany, political turmoil in Greece was reviving fears about the fate of the euro.
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