Height. Has to be second only to ‘who goes through the door first‘ on the list of Inane Shit That Suddenly Takes On Critical Importance In Politics.
The one thing no leader wants is to wind up stuck next to, say, General de Gaulle (6’4) and end up looking infantilised and subordinate, and a symmetrical sine wave arrangement like the one above has the benefit of reducing contrasts… In theory. In practice, I suspect, it not only makes them look like a chorus line about to break into a Moulin Rouge dance number (here, have some mind-bleach), but actually draws attention to the issue.
In this case, clearly Merkel has the advantage. Not only has fortune given her the middle spot, thus making her look like the divine peacemaker, but this is probably the only field in politics where women have the advantage. Not only can they wear high heels in public without it having any serious impact on their polls, but they’re far less affected by the whole sad, Freudian business in the first place. (Well obviously. What on earth did you think height was a stand-in for?)
Putin is 5’7 (I once had to sketch him for an online political magazine – I checked) and often has problems in this field when meeting other leaders (Xi Jinping and Obama are both noticeably taller), but he carries himself well and has the additional advantage of scaring the fuck out of everyone, so it’s minimised. Hollande for his part is, I suspect, generally given an easy ride by the French press when it comes to photo angles and compositions. I’ve run into him in real life, and remember being thoroughly shocked to realise that I am taller than he is. Apparently this had not been evident to me prior to this, so I can only assume flattering photography. He also needs to be told to stand with his shoulders back.
The real winner here has to be Poroshenko, however ( Lukashenko is nearly as tall, but looks like an ex-policeman fired for serious sexual misconduct, so Poroshenko with his JFK haircut and broad shoulders carries it). To be honest, he might as well have insisted on being in the centre of the pictures; God knows he got little enough else out of the process.