France has strong expectations of Germany, but these expectations can be paradoxical, even schizophrenic. On the one hand, there are historical French fears of a reborn Germany becoming too powerful or simply being “arrogant.” On the other, there are increasing expectations that Germany, often regarded as an over-cautious ally, will make more substantial commitments, especially on foreign, European, and defense policy. Paradoxically, within this context, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s modest policies seem to maintain the right balance, serving to reassure French fears.
For this reason, the upcoming German elections, set for September 26, remain a cause for concern in France. Underlying this concern is not only the prospect of Merkel’s own departure, but also the possibility of poor results for her bloc, the alliance of her center-right Christian Democratic Union with Bavaria’s Christian Social Union. In French political and diplomatic circles, there are fears prompted by the growing influence of the Green party, including the possible break-up of the current CDU-Social Democrat federal coalition, or worse, a new majority without any Christian Democrat participation. Of scenarios in which the Christian Democrats are not in government, the worst from a French point of view would be a coalition of the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the radical Left Party. This outcome—known as a “red-red-green” coalition—could call into question all the projects launched during the Merkel era, even the less ambitious ones. Given the current weakness of the CDU, the end of the Merkel era has become a clear matter for concern in Paris. Specifically, these concerns focus on how cooperation with Germany will develop if the new government has no Christian Democrat participation, let alone with an unprecedented Green-led coalition.
Defense—the Main French Concern
On issues of security and defense, a continued participation of the CDU/CSU in government would give Paris the reassurances it needs that the status quo will continue. In the fall of 2020, a public disagreement (largely conducted through the media) between French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was widely discussed. The disagreement, which centered on questions of European strategic autonomy, revealed tensions between the two allies. However, Paris was reassured by the objectives laid out in the position paper “Reflections on Tomorrow’s Bundeswehr,” written in February 2021 by the Inspector General of the German armed forces, General Eberhard Zorn, as well as by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s visit to France in April 2021. Within the French political establishment, there are hopes that General Zorn will retain his job after the elections, to provide continuity on Franco-German efforts toward a common defense policy.
But even a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Greens (known as a “black-green” coalition) is regarded with skepticism in France. The German Greens “agree in principle” that the next generation of military technology should be co-developed with France to boost European sovereignty. However, they disagree with Paris on the question of arms exports and have heavily criticized the current German government for giving in to French pressure. The Greens remain opposed to nuclear defense and to arms exports, both of which are essential policy elements for France. In particular, Paris fears that the Greens in government may cast the SCAF project (Future Air Combat System) into doubt. On May 17, the French, German, and Spanish defense ministries formally announced the continuation of the program. However, there is still no agreement on its budget or on intellectual property questions. Beginning on June 21, the German parliament will discuss a finance bill providing €25 million for the project; Green deputies are openly skeptical. No surprise, then, that President Macron is uncomfortable with the prospect of the Greens in government. The project will ultimately cost around $1 billion, with Green support by no means clear.
There are further French worries about German participation in joint overseas military operations, especially in Mali, in West Africa. Although the party’s position has evolved in recent years, nonetheless the Greens have traditionally been the peace party, highly critical of NATO. Even today, the party remains skeptical on Bundeswehr missions overseas. On May 19, 2021, a vote in the German parliament on extending Bundeswehr missions in Mali was scrutinized with some concern in Paris. In fact, a majority of Green deputies voted to extend the German armed forces’ participation in MINUSMA, the UN stabilization mission in the West African country. However, for the second time in a row, they refused to vote for German participation in EUTM, the European Union Training Mission in Mali. The Greens have criticized a planned expansion of the mission to additionally cover Chad, as part of an overall expansion of the mandate for the G5 Sahel joint force, because of concerns about the autocratic nature of the Chadian regime.
Paris has two main concerns about German intervention in the Sahel. First, despite the German government’s desire to share the military burden—unthinkable just a few years ago—its involvement in the region has clear limits, and these do not match French expectations. Berlin remains reluctant to see German soldiers engage in combat missions, a position which will be become more pronounced should the Greens enter government. The abstention of Green party parliamentarians on the issue is another cause for concern in Paris. French observers fear that if the Greens enter a coalition, the current government’s commitment to increase German military advisors in the region from 450 to 600 may be called into question when the mission next comes up for renewal in 2022. In Paris, the strengthening of Germany’s presence was seen as a gesture of goodwill. It was even greeted with relief: the French government is keen to maintain the presence of its German ally in this bogged-down conflict in an increasingly unstable region.
A More “European” Foreign Policy
France’s worries and expectations also involve Germany’s foreign and European policy. If the Greens enter government, a shift in foreign policy is to be expected, with Berlin taking a stronger line toward authoritarian regimes, including China and Russia, with the focus increasingly on questions such as human rights. With regard to China, the fear is that the Greens may prioritize the rights of Uighurs, Tibetans, and the population of Hong Kong, raising these issues above trade relations, but also above environmental issues, which will undoubtedly require Beijing’s cooperation. Preventing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a policy outcome sought by the Greens, might seem like a point in common with French foreign policy. However, this may also present a problem, since it would improve German relations with other opponents of the pipeline, above all with Poland, and thus may isolate Paris on the question.
Likewise, the Greens’ declared wish for rapprochement with the United States under President Joe Biden, in order to lead the ecological transition and better support values shared with Europe could also lead to discord in Franco-German relations. For the German Greens, it goes without saying that Europe should develop its sovereignty and strategic autonomy, as proposed by France, but they believe this should take place within the context of NATO’s European pillar. But French expectations are more disruptive on this question, since Paris ultimately believes that Europe should free itself from United States dominance of NATO. Finally, as shown by tensions in the eastern Mediterranean in the summer of 2020, France already regards Germany as overly favorable to Turkey, a trend that could increase with a black-green coalition. France expects its German partner to show more solidarity with EU member states in the region, especially with Greece, in the face of Turkish provocation.
In terms of European policy, the CDU/CSU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet represents continuity with Merkel, in fact he is seen as even more European than the current chancellor. In France, Laschet is often regarded as an “ideal partner for Europe.” As chancellor, he would be “pro-European,” quite “compatible” with President Macron. Nonetheless, there is widespread awareness within French political circles of Laschet’s political difficulties, including poor showing in the opinion polls, a lack of charisma, and his errors in handling the COVID-19 crisis in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where he is premier. If Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ top candidate, were to be actually elected chancellor, it would restore Germany to the center of debate on the EU’s future, with an inevitable impact on France's room for maneuver on European policy. Germany’s Green party like to think of itself as the most ardent defender of Europe in the country, regarding France as their most important partner in the drive to greater European integration and the transformation of the EU into a more ecologically and socially equitable organization. Moreover, the Greens also share Macron’s vision of a sovereign Europe. But none of this entirely reassures ruling circles in Paris. A renewal of Germany’s commitment to Europe, for example through new initiatives emerging from Berlin, could compete with the French desire to take the lead on deepening EU integration.
France’s priority above all is to ensure continuity on certain flagship projects, including the implementation of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Despite radical shifts in the European agenda, France hopes to present the results of the conference’s debates during its EU Council presidency in the first half of 2022, especially since dialogue with citizens is one of the key tenets of its political communications. France expects support from Germany in carrying out the conference. But there are fears in Paris that, after the elections, Germany may drag its feet on the issue. Finally, Paris has considerable expectations of Berlin during its presidency, which it considers to be a continuation of Germany’s presidency in the second half of 2020. Above all, France wants German support for its project to consolidate European industrial and technological sovereignty, a subject on which Berlin has traditionally been skeptical. This policy area, like many others linked to digitalization, is a priority for France, but cannot succeed without German support.
On climate change and energy transition, Green participation in government would guarantee new opportunities, but would also risk generating conflicts between the two countries. On this issue, there are strong expectations on both sides of the Rhine, but they are not the same expectations. The more optimistic version thinks the arrival of Greens in government will facilitate decision-making and allow for progress on these issues. However, many also see the potential for conflict, since Germany is committed to a very low-carbon model, with an overall goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. While this could be a force to drive change within the European Union, the specific ecological transition favored by Germany’s Greens could risk higher energy prices. Moreover, the Greens are strongly opposed to nuclear energy, an unpopular position in France.
“En Marche” with the German Greens
Despite these differences, there are shared objectives between Macron’s party La République En Marche! (LREM) and the German Greens. Indeed, some French parliamentarians regard Green participation in government as an opportunity. For Christopher Arend, an LREM parliamentarian and the president of the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly, “those who fear the German Greens have not understood them.” In fact, critical views of the German Greens in France are often mistakenly based on experience with their French counterparts. France’s Green party is still anchored on the far left, and so badly affected by internal divisions that centrist and right-wing voters regard it as a political threat, incapable of governing. Within political circles, the more contact there is with the actual German Greens, the less fear the party provokes.
As far as Arend is concerned, Germany’s Greens have proved their seriousness as a political party and have shown real evolution, even on defense policy, although this remains their Achilles’ heel. Their policy positions, he points out, and the composition of their electorate, bear considerable similarities to Macron’s own political movement, “En Marche,” which swept to power in France in 2017. Arend also mentions several policies shared by the two parties, including climate and energy transition, European policy, and the commitment to a sovereign Europe.
Overall, the performance of the Green party has been closely followed in France, since it will determine the composition of any new coalition, as well as the balance of power within it. The electoral performance of the environmentalist party will be a key factor in the new program for government and the allocation of ministerial portfolios. However, despite some apprehension, French politicians and officials are well aware that the advent of the Greens in government in Berlin will not necessarily change or call into question Germany’s policy positions.
Paul Maurice is a research fellow at the Study Committee on Franco-German Relations (Cerfa) at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).