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

Tandem Malfunction


The Franco-German relationship has been on the rocks in recent years, as asymmetries have grown and a series of crises have rattled Europe. It’s time to patch things up.

© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

They might not be running for office in Germany, but for France’s presidential candidates, a campaign stop on German soil has become par for the course. French politicians have often used their larger, more powerful neighbor as a platform to lay out their visions for France and Europe. It was little surprise therefore to see former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who has built his own “En Marche!” movement, arguing for a more proactive France in front of a crowd at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Conservative François Fillon, on the other hand, traveled to the German capital to meet with his fellow Christian Democrat, Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the start of the year; he also delivered a speech calling for a more streamlined Europe. As for the leader of the right-wing populist Front National, Marine Le Pen, she teamed up with the German populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party at a gathering of far-right leaders in Koblenz in January, where she took aim at Berlin’s pro-European policies.

All three candidates have drastically different visions for France and its role in Europe, and this May’s presidential election will undoubtedly have a significant impact on Germany and France’s unique bilateral relationship – by far the closest within the EU. It still holds true that any European solution requires Berlin and Paris at the helm, whether it’s dealing with eurozone woes or the migration crisis. Yet in recent years, Europe’s two most powerful states have been increasingly limited in their ability to advance a common agenda.

Disappearing Power

The last few years have shown that Berlin and Paris are finding it ever more difficult to strike compromises and mobilize partners. Despite a series of crises within the EU and beyond, pressing questions remain unresolved. Joint efforts to deal with the refugee crisis in 2016 proved difficult. Merkel and President François Hollande met various times over many months in an effort to find a common solution, with little to show for it: the proposal that emerged from those hours of negotiations aimed to strengthen the EU’s external borders and reform the Dublin asylum regulation. But their in part quite far-reaching proposals met with opposition, and Berlin and Paris proved unable to convince their  European partners of the wisdom of their ideas.

Interests within the bloc have grown increasingly diverse, and European-level governance has become controversial, particularly with the wave of right-wing populism sweeping the continent. And in some policy areas, integration is already so advanced that any step forward threatens to tread upon national sovereignty.

It is precisely the question of integration and sovereignty that Germany and France have failed to address adequately; daily cooperation between the two governments has helped in times of crisis, but neither Merkel nor Hollande have succeeded in setting out a clear vision for Europe or taking responsibility of a fragile community. If the two leaders don’t present a series of goals and agree to compromise on European policy at the highest level, the vaunted French-German partnership could slowly grind to a halt. More importantly, both countries are facing key tests in national elections this year, and new faces could well reshape bilateral relations significantly, redefining a long-standing partnership.

A Fluid Balance

France and Germany’s relationship was long defined by a relatively fluid yet stable equilibrium: Germany was traditionally stronger economically, and France drew its influence from foreign policy and military prowess. But after the end of the Cold War, France’s traditional tools of power – its nuclear arsenal, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and its ties to the United States – started to lose their shine. At the same time, Germany discovered a newfound confidence on the world stage, building a mighty export-oriented economy and assuming a leading role in the EU. The scales began to tip decisively, and the chasm between the two countries sparked tensions.

In the back halls of the National Assembly in Paris, frustration brewed amid feelings that the French government had been relegated to second fiddle and no longer held the keys to its own future. Berlin, on the other hand, felt increasingly vulnerable to the mistakes and weaknesses of France and other European countries. These doubts and misunderstandings still plague their relationship today.

Some perceptions have improved: Gone are the days of 2012, when controversy over German dominance in the EU stirred hefty debates in France. Yet even if Germany is not explicitly mentioned in campaign rhetoric, Berlin’s relative strength has cast a shadow over growth, competitiveness, and economic reforms. For many French voters, Germany is clearly setting the course for the EU.

In a country where a sense of national pride and sovereignty run deep, it is not entirely surprising that German power has become a source of irritation among voters and lawmakers – particularly for those on the more extreme ends of the political spectrum. Marine Le Pen has accused Germany of enslaving “the peoples of Europe.” The far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon, meanwhile, has demanded a showdown with the German government. Voices of discontent have even emerged from mainstream parties: the Socialists’ candidate, Benoît Hamon, is calling for an alliance of Europe’s left to counter Berlin’s policies, and Fillon aims to make France a solid counterweight to Germany. Until now, only Macron appears to see France and Germany bound by their commonalities rather than their differences.

Tensions between France and Germany are hardly new. The familiar power play between the two neighbors featured prominently in the 1970s after the oil crisis, during the ensuing economic crisis, and even in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War and German reunification. At that time, French newspapers were awash with the question of whether a dominant Germany posed a threat to France because it wielded far more economic and political influence. These days, anti-German sentiment has returned.

Yet in these debates, it is often forgotten just how much Germany depends upon a politically and economically stable France. Germany has often been described as a reluctant hegemon, uncomfortable, self-conscious, and uncertain of its own power. In recent years in particular, Berlin has longed for a stronger, more robust partner in Paris willing and able to share the burden of responsibility. France’s weak points are seen as a liability, both politically and economically.

What’s more, fears abound in Berlin, too, where some lawmakers are increasingly concerned they are being hoodwinked, with suspicions that Paris is undermining the eurozone’s rules. In some circles in Berlin, there is the belief and expectation that France “must do its homework” before further steps can be taken. On both sides, mistrust and strained communication have hindered actual progress.

Reset Needed

The framework of France’s and Germany’s relationship has also faced significant structural changes that make it difficult to restore ties to what they once were.

First, Europe’s debt crisis has sharpened the lines of asymmetry between the two; while Germany was barely affected, France is still struggling with an unemployment rate of around ten percent, sluggish growth, and towering public debt. Meanwhile Germany is enjoying full employment, record surpluses, and a balanced budget; and the US has overtaken France to become its largest trading partner.

France has also seen the president’s authority suffer a blow in recent years, due to the governing Socialists’ internal squabbling on European and economic policy. The Front National, meanwhile, has pushed public discourse to the right and destabilized the political landscape. These developments have weakened France’s position in the EU as Paris has become a less reliable partner. Germany has witnessed a long period of stability, but the AfD is threatening to rattle the status quo. If the populists garner enough votes to enter parliament in September (which looks likely at this point), mainstream parties in government will be reluctant to pursue more integrationist policies.

Second, structural changes have reinforced the uneven distribution of power in the EU. A series of crises have tarnished the bloc’s image and made Germany’s disproportionate strength loom especially large. The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon shifted power in Brussels, enhancing the role of the European Council and weakening that of the European Commission. That has benefited large countries like Germany that could build coalitions and frame policy; France, meanwhile, has been facing domestic battles and has struggled to appear credible.

Third, skepticism and downright hostility toward the European project has grown significantly in France over the last decade. According to a study from the Pew Research Center in June 2016, 32 percent of those polled were in favor of the European Union, compared to 69 percent in 2004. It’s no wonder then that most of this year’s presidential candidates have curried voters’ favor by portraying the EU as the problem, rather than part of the solution.

For years, European integration was sold to French voters as a form of protection, especially from the powerful forces of globalization. But doggedly high unemployment and the rising number of people in precarious living conditions have seen trust in Europe dwindle. Germany is seen as the main architect behind the EU’s strict “austerity” rules as well. In short, many French believe they have been forced to implement policies that are directly responsible for their economic and social woes.
The EU enlargement in Eastern Europe of 2004 – bringing the bloc to 25 members – was regarded with skepticism, too, triggering feelings of uncertainty and alienation. A year later, those sentiments bubbled to the surface as a majority of French voters rejected the EU’s proposed constitutional treaty. The commitment to more fiscal discipline only fueled frustration further.

Germans, on the other hand, mostly saw the 2004 enlargement as an historic and strategic necessity and a further economic opportunity. Doubling down on fiscal discipline was considered a prerequisite for long-term sustainable growth, and financial solidarity was a key cornerstone of future success. Clearly, France and Germany were drifting apart.

Bringing Back Old Habits

In the past, Germany and France have countered mistrust and resentment with more cooperation: Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing built the foundation for a common currency in the 1970s, for example. Some twenty years later, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand brought their governments together for a conference that paved the way for the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Integration, it seemed, was a natural reflex to uncertainty. These days, that seems no longer the natural thing to do.

The task of keeping the EU together and preserving the single market in the face of Brexit and the Trump presidency has taken top priority, while the question of reforming treaties is no longer considered realistic. Yet it is time to return to the old reflex, with a new approach: fresh Franco-German initiatives could be effective if they are based on a deep understanding of the economic and social circumstances in both countries. The labor market is a prime example. German companies have complained time and again about a shortage of skilled labor; France, meanwhile, is struggling to combat high unemployment. French youth lack real prospects at home, and that threatens to destabilize social cohesion with serious consequences. Front National has scored well with young people by portraying itself as a champion of the weak. Together, Germany and France could bridge the labor gap.

This year is likely to be a decisive one for the EU and the French-German relationship. There is no denying that the two countries have the power to tackle crucial questions on integration and reform. It is equally clear, however, that competing interests and political polarization will threaten to drive a wedge between Berlin and Paris, particularly with elections drawing closer. Joint initiatives might fail to overcome anti-European sentiment; yet it is more likely that the EU itself will fail if these two countries do not forge a path ahead together.