A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Seeking the Force for Good


French President Emmanuel Macron has chosen Germany as France’s comrade in arms. But words have not been succeeded by action, neither in Paris or Berlin. It’s high time for the political elites to wrack their brains about how to jointly take Europe forward.

© REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The mood is changing in the Franco-German relationship. Spring has sprung in Berlin and Paris; in the elite Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood and on the Bastille square, the change of season is tempting residents outside to the café terraces. Senior government officials and diplomats sit among them. Warm feelings for one another could blossom, and President Macron’s seminal speech on Europe last autumn at the Sorbonne could finally prompt them to take joint action.

But the opposite seems to be the case. Bitterness and anguish are once again on the horizon. The elites of both capitals look back at a year of lofty statements and joint plans only to realize, with either glee or solemn acceptance, that nothing ended up happening at all. The naysayers already have the upper hand: “Didn’t I tell you guys? You can’t rely on Paris.” Or: “Je vous disais toujours, Germany was never going to take action.” Those in Paris and Berlin seem to prefer talking about new enemies—Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Xi Jinping—than about their traditional remaining allies. There is little sign of the reaction these four villains ought to trigger: strengthening the countries’ respective national ranks and, subsequently, the Franco-German alliance.

The Return of Lethargy

Nothing better epitomizes the return of Franco-German lethargy than the reaction of both sides to Macron’s proposal to renew the 1963 Treaty of Friendship between Germany and France. The treaty is the historic, intergovernmental foundation for the reconciliation of France and Germany after the Second World War. It is a masterpiece of two great politicians: Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. Who would want to reformulate that legacy? Who can reconcile German soft power and French nuclear power? Who will forge German civilian-power thinking and French military-power thinking into a durable European alliance against the threats of the 21st century?

I raised these questions in April with Pascal Bruckner in the Café de la Poste, an establishment in the Parisian district of Marais. Bruckner is among France’s “new philosophers,” who have long since begun to age. He is one of the most-translated French authors in the world. Still, he’s never above polemics. So I suggested he write a new Élysée Treaty, France’s less cumbersome name for the historic document. Bruckner laughed—he barely knows Germany, he said. That’s irrelevant, I responded, since no one else seems to be leading the public debate, and someone has to kick it into gear with a bit of common sense. Bruckner squirmed. He had just, in our conversation, committed himself “fully and completely” to Macron, and probably sensed that he could indeed help his president if he picked up where Macron left off in the Sorbonne speech and got behind a new treaty with the Germans. But major Parisian intellectuals like Bruckner are vain and egotistical; they don’t allow others to dictate their topics. The fact that Bruckner had not immediately rejected my suggestion and wanted to think it over was already a great success.

On one point, however, Bruckner was very clear: Enemies form alliances, he said, naming Trump, Erdogan, and Putin, and this ought to prompt Macron and his German partner, Chancellor Angela Merkel, to do the same by standing firmly together. France’s new philosophers have always had a tendency to plow the great field of foreign policy with simple moral messages. During the Cold War they used sharp rhetoric to resist Germany’s Ostpolitik. Forget Wandel durch Handel, as Germany’s then-chancellor Willy Brandt put it. For Bruckner and his most famous comrades-in-arms, André Glucksmann and Henri Bernard-Lévy, it was all about resisting the “power of evil” in the form of the Soviet Union. Every military build-up was considered legitimate. They consistently took the side of eastern dissidents, from Lech Walesa to Vaclav Havel.
Courage and Humanity

To some extent, Macron has followed in their footsteps over the past year, but with a twist—he has unequivocally declared Germany a force for good in the face of the new global state of disorder. One may recall his appearance at Berlin’s Humboldt University on January 10, 2017. “I’ve already said it once, but I’ll repeat it here: German society has confronted the mass arrival of refugees with admirable clarity, with courage and humanity,” Macron said at the time, in the heat of France’s presidential election campaign.

It was on that January day, if not earlier, that Macron declared his allegiance to the good Germany. He repeated it in every campaign speech. He never took the podium without his “German friends.” For Macron there were never any other allies, say, the Italians or the Spanish, who were quite as important. No, the good guys at his side were, above all others, “les amis allemands.”

Word got around. A new Franco-German impetus for the EU seemed possible. Macron’s electoral victory moved closer and, when the newly elected president took office and began courting the German chancellor more forcefully than ever before, the Franco-German pair seemed, at their summit meeting on July 13 in Paris, almost on par with the world’s greatest powers.

The German federal election in autumn 2017 did little to disturb the feeling of gentle euphoria on both sides of the Rhine. On the contrary, the fact that Germany was governed by a caretaker cabinet for months after the election explained perfectly why no action followed Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne shortly after the German election, where he had once again made the Franco-German awakening seem close enough to touch. After all, Macron was just waiting for Merkel, whose fourth term as chancellor was never really in doubt. In the spring, at Easter, they would really get going together.

Until Merkel’s re-inauguration on March 14, 2018, the optimists held onto hope. After that, however, the euphoria to the west and east of the Rhine began to evaporate. It is as if all participants suddenly realized, at the ring of an alarm clock, that they had been dreaming for a year. As if Merkel’s new term came with the understanding that the time for lofty speeches by the French president was over, and it was time to get back to the hard work of day-to-day business. In other words: enough with the chatter about a big eurozone budget!

Back Burner Thinking

Macron proposed a eurozone budget worth several per cent of eurozone GDP in August 2017. One per cent of eurozone GDP is 130 billion euros. Officials from the German Finance Ministry, who did not want to be named, responded immediately by stating that spending more than 25 billion on new measures for the eurozone was not on the cards. This sort of back burner thinking seems to be shared by the new German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. Macron has already dialled back his expectations. It will be “a few years” before a eurozone budget is devised, according to people close to Macron who have watched the beginning of Merkel’s fourth term unfold.

Evidently, the long winter, which for government-free Berlin was also a winter of political wrangling, drained Franco-German energy. But there was no rest for the wicked. Trump kicked off his trade war. Putin and Erdogan kept playing their games in Syria. Xi had himself elected president for life. And Paris and Berlin had no response. That called the doubters into action.

From the Hôtel Matignon in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, where the prime minister governs, one can already anticipate the backlash against the president’s German-friendly plan. The memories are still fresh; it was exactly the same during the refugee crisis in 2015. Francois Hollande, the lord of Elysée Palace at the time, did not hesitate to get behind Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees stranded on the Balkan route. But his prime minister, Manuel Valls, revolted. Valls would later visit a refugee camp in Munich to declare his opposition to Germany’s asylum policy. A coherent Franco-German position on refugees, one that every EU citizen could understand, remained elusive.

That could well be different in spring 2018. Paris and Berlin want to put forward a joint concept for a European refugee policy at the European Council summit in June. So far, however, it does not look like it will be well-received.

Scholz’ first appearance as German finance minister on the seventh floor of the French Finance Ministry—with a view of the Seine and the Notre Dame cathedral—was a humiliation for the French esprit. Before further decisions could be made, Scholz announced, expert groups had to meet and do the ministers’ homework. He was referring to the European banking union, introduced back in 2014. For years, the French have considered the completion of the banking union through a common European deposit insurance scheme the closest minimum target for the further integration of the eurozone.

So to the French, the issue had long been settled. Not for Scholz. The man quibbled, as if both sides hadn’t been negotiating this since 2009, as if most of the work had been left for the new German finance minister to do. Scholz held a lengthy press conference with his counterpart Bruno Le Maire. At its conclusion, a French journalist—who apparently had not understood Scholz’s message—asked if he, the German social democrat, would nevertheless be the man in the German cabinet to push for further integration of the eurozone. Scholz answered with one word: “Ja!” But at this stage hardly anyone present was buying it. If they had, the question wouldn’t have been necessary.

Gaining the Upper Hand

The Germany-skeptics in Paris are even stronger after lost opportunities like that. Macron had muzzled them for a year. He had installed only obvious friends of Germany at Elysée Palace. Above all there is Philippe Etienne, the former French ambassador in Berlin, whom Macron made his Sherpa for the G7 and the G20 and thus his most important foreign policy coordinator. This made it clear that Paris was seeking to close coordination with Berlin on every foreign policy decision. Etienne and the other advisors around Macron spoke fluent German—a novelty that needed no diplomatic explanation.

Macron’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe speaks good German too. But he comes from the political school of Alain Juppé, who wanted to run against Macron in the last presidential elections, though he lost in the conservative primaries and bowed out early. Juppé has a reputation as an exemplary pro-European, but he is a southern Frenchman through and through and Germany has always been foreign to him. Many of Juppé’s former employees are now in Philippe’s circle of advisors in the Hôtel Matignon. The fact that resistance to a seemingly naïve, pro-Berlin president is brewing there should not surprise anyone.

Macron’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian might also condone opposition to Macron’s German-friendly policy. In Paris one hears stories that he once enjoyed bashing Germany in his home province of Brittany. In the autumn of 2016, in the turbulence that followed the British vote to leave, Le Drian, then defence minister, held a press conference with his German counterpart, Ursula von der Leyen. He agreed to enhance Franco-German defence cooperation, but many military experts in Paris were reluctant to believe him. For he had previously, on a visit home to Brittany, aired his conviction that France’s military superiority over Germany was actually a blessing, and ought to be preserved.

So Le Drian is probably a Germany-skeptic—just as Scholz is presumably a France-skeptic, compared to the avowed Macron fans Sigmar Gabriel and Martin Schulz, who are no longer relevant within the SPD. The anti-French grumblers have a long tradition. They are a force to be reckoned with. The they inserted a Bundestag preamble to the 1963 Franco-German Treaty of Friendship that emphasized their country’s alliance with the United States. With that, the treaty was stillborn. De Gaulle announced France’s withdrawal from NATO shortly afterwards.

Today one wonders which preamble the German Bundestag would put before a new version of the treaty, which, according to current plans, the president and chancellor are to sign in January 2019. Will the Bundestag, at the request of the right-wing AfD and the pro-business FDP opposition parties, specify that a balanced German budget is a precondition for any increase in the eurozone budget? Or will it, at the request of the Greens and the Left, stipulate that Germany will take no responsibility for any future use of nuclear weapons by France?

Turning the Tide

There is still time to turn the tide. High time! Pascal Bruckner and Durs Grünbein, who most certainly read and esteem one another, should write a new Elysée Treaty together—and why not as a poem? Sigmar Gabriel and François Hollande should, as retired politicians, write a new Élysée Treaty—they have already teamed up to save Greece from Wolfgang Schäuble and his intention to toss the country out of the eurozone. But CEOs Joe Kaeser of Siemens and Henry Poupart-Lafarge of Alstom should also write a treaty of friendship—they are currently negotiating the merger of their respective companies and yet continue to compete for every contract.

Ultimately it comes down to the question of whether, after 1963, after German reunification, after the financial crisis of 2008, after the rise of China and Putin’s Russian renaissance, after Brexit and the Trump vote, there is wisdom in Franco-German unity. The Brit Gideon Rachman, columnist at the Financial Times, seems to believe there is. He sees the EU as the “only real mechanism for trying to find solutions to pan-European problems that are legal, humane and equitable.”

That is exactly what the Franco-German friendship should aim to do. With regards to how best to go about it, well, the elites in Prenzlauer Berg and on the Bastille ought to rack their brains this spring. There ought to be quarrels and sparring between Paris and Berlin. If that is the case, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel could soon reap the rewards. For that to happen, however, the German side may have to adopt some of France’s arrogance: the arrogance to say, we, Germany and France, are the force for good. That is something many Europeans would understand.