For centuries, Germany and France have determined the fate of the European continent, from war to peace and prosperity. While the single market has made distant the prospect of war, the leaders of these two powers - Europe's two largest economies - still hold the most influence over the continent's direction. And they are both headed for a change in leadership.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are known quantities, in office since 2005 and 2007, respectively. But at this crucial time - with the European economy hanging in the balance, an immigration crisis opening rifts between European neighbors, and European forces engaged in conflicts from Libya to Afghanistan - the two leaders look increasingly shaky.
France will elect a president next year. At the moment, Sarkozy is falling in the polls. Meanwhile, Merkel's party has lost pivotal local elections, falling in popularity for most of the 20 months since she was re-elected. Germany's next federal election falls in 2013.
To American readers it will come as no surprise that those who hope to take Sarkozy's and Merkel's places are already jockeying for support. From Mildrade Cherfils in Paris and David Wroe in Berlin, here's a look at the leaders who might occupy Europe's top two spots in two years' time:
France's presidential landscape changed this past weekend when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, French Socialist and head of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested and charged with attempting to rape a hotel maid in New York City. Strauss-Kahn had not yet announced whether he would run for president, but if he had thrown his hat in the ring, he was expected to dominate the October Socialist party primary, and polls had him ahead nationally.
Before Strauss-Kahn's apparent fall from grace, France's two main political parties were already navigating the unfamiliar terrain of a three-legged race for the Elysee Palace. Here are the main contenders, in addition to Sarkozy, who still hopes to win despite his dismal popularity numbers:
Francois Hollande. The former secretary of the left-leaning Socialist party recently held his first rally with supporters. In preparation for 2012, he has shed some pounds, adopted a new attitude and put forth a platform. During the last election, Hollande, who has never held a ministerial position, watched from the sidelines as the mother of his children, Segolene Royal, took the leading role of Sarkozy's challenger. Socialist leader Martine Aubry has not expressed an interest in seeking the nomination.
Francois Fillon. If surveys continue to predict an unfavorable outcome for Sarkozy, they might prompt "a rebellion on the right" that yields a more appealing candidate from the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), such as Prime Minister Francois Fillon, said political science professor Philippe Braud. Forty-eight percent of French citizens have a favorable view of the 57-year-old career politician, according to an Ifop poll, compared with Sarkozy's 28 percent.
Alain Juppe. The foreign affairs minister could also be a contender given his years of experience, especially under Jacques Chirac. The strong Sarkozy ally also would not step forward unless asked and putting forth another UMP candidate would be risky if a win wasn't guaranteed. Juppe joined Sarkozy's cabinet as defense minister in late 2010 in a reshuffle designed to reinvigorate the flagging government. But he soon took over foreign affairs from Michele Alliot-Marie, who sparked controversy with her vacation to Tunisia during protests there, as well as other ties to the country.
Marine Le Pen. Since Jean-Marie Le Pen's daughter took the reins of the far-right National Front from her elderly father in January, her campaign has been in full swing. Marine Le Pen seems poised to set the public debate agenda for the next year, said Francois Durpaire, a professor and historian. Other candidates will need to position themselves in relation to her, he said. The last time the National Front appeared in the second round of a presidential election in France was in 2002; it won nearly 18 percent of the vote.
Le Pen, recently featured in Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people, has sold her party headquarters to raise campaign funds totaling about 10 million euros, according to local news reports, and has taken positions that are already setting her apart from her father in the minds of voters. She banned skinheads from attending the annual far-right May 1 Labor Day parade, for example.
Jean-Louis Borloo. The centrist candidate, a former ecology minister, broke ties with UMP recently to head the Radical Party, which counts other alumni from Sarkozy's government among its supporters, most notably, Rama Yade, a former junior secretary. Backing from others in the establishment has been slow to come. Borloo has had an untraditional career in French politics, as a former football club president and member of the European Parliament.
Dominique de Villepin. The former prime minister and career diplomat who shined after his United Nations speech helped keep France out of the war in Iraq, created his own party to give the French an alternative to Sarkozy, but his intentions remain marginal.
Jean-Francois Cope. The Sarkozy loyalist and UMP head was instrumental in the charge to ban veils covering the full face in France. Just 47, he is waiting in the wings and has said publicly that he will run in 2017.
Nicolas Hulot. The television presenter and environmentalist, who was the first candidate in the race, is one of the most popular public figures in France, with an approval rating of 71 percent by some estimates. It remains to be seen if he can turn his strong popularity into political capital. Being a new candidate, "who seems not to belong to the political establishment," works in his favor, Braud said.