Jun 28, 2023

Evidence of Affection

Emmanuel Macron is coming to Germany for a state visit—the first French president to do so since 2000. It’s a chance for Berlin to show its appreciation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dines with French President Emmanuel Macron at the "Kochzimmer" restaurant in Potsdam outside Berlin, Germany, June 6, 2023.
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What is the state of Franco-German relations shortly before President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Germany—the first by a French president in 23 years? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has compared the Franco-German engine to a “compromise machine” that runs “well-oiled, but sometimes noisily and is marked by hard work.” He drew the comparison on January 22, 2023, at the Franco-German Council of Ministers in Paris, which should have taken place at the end of October 2022. Disagreements had led to a sensational postponement.

When things get noisy between Paris and Berlin, for example when compromises are reached on energy policy or the future of the stability and growth pact is being debated, all of Europe listens. The background noise (almost) drowns out the extraordinary Franco-German harmony in the face of the most serious geopolitical upheaval since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Unlike during the Balkan wars, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not cause Germany and France to slip into opposing historical knee-jerk reactions. Instead, there was, and still is, a spontaneous agreement not to accept this attack on the international order, to support Ukraine for “as long as necessary,” and to reorganize Europe’s security in the face of Russian imperialism. The Franco-German closing of ranks on sanctions, arms deliveries, and NATO and EU enlargement is remarkable because it is anything but self-evident.

Old Ordeals

A good three decades ago, the disintegration of Yugoslavia turned into a Franco-German test. Germany pushed ahead with the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia and upheld the right of self-determination of the people, while France initially focused on saving the multi-ethnic state and accommodated Serbian plans. It was only as the conflicts went on and after serious upheavals that the positions between France and Germany converged. The Kosovo war from March to June 1999, with NATO air strikes on targets in Serbia, marked a turning point in Germany’s postwar history. But for France, too, with its unbroken tradition of military operations, the NATO mission was tantamount to an about-face. France’s then Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine had long shared the Serbian view of Kosovo as the “cradle of their country, the cradle of their history.” The French government organized the Rambouillet and Paris conferences in February 1999, hoping for a negotiated settlement.

Only after the failure of the negotiations did Paris change its mind and actively participate in the United States-led NATO mission. The experience was to tip the balance in France’s bid to return to NATO’s integrated military structures, a process that was completed in 2009.

Looking back on the Balkan wars, it is possible to gauge how far Berlin and Paris have converged on crucial foreign and security policy issues. The second chapter of the Aachen Treaty between the two countries, “to establish common positions on all important decisions,” is respected. This is all the more remarkable given that the “traffic light” coalition in Berlin of Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), took some time to realize the importance of the treaty, signed in 2019.

On May 9, 2023, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock became the first member of the Scholz government to attend a French cabinet meeting focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is all the more symbolic that the chancellor and the French president made their first trip to Kyiv late, but together (with then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Romanian President Klaus Johannis).

The Russian attack on Ukraine marks the breakdown of arguably the most significant Franco-German diplomatic initiative without US involvement on the European continent. The Normandy Format emerged at the sidelines of the 2014 D-Day commemorations and constituted a remarkable Franco-German attempt to take the fate of Europe “a bit further” (as then Chancellor Angela Merkel would later put it) into their own hands.

Movement on Both Sides

It therefore seems understandable that it was Berlin and Paris that sought to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin following the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. But in both capitals, there is disillusionment with Putin’s lies. Scholz laid the groundwork for a lasting consensus with Paris with his “Zeitenwende speech” on Germany’s intellectual and material rearmament, the delivery of Western-designed battle tanks to Ukraine, and the pragmatic end to export restrictions to war zones. In a mirror image, Macron revised his “brain dead” statement on NATO and declared his willingness to station a NATO battle group in Romania, led by France, to deter Russia.

In his speech in Bratislava at the end of May, Macron also opened the door wide for NATO membership for Ukraine when he called for robust security guarantees against Russia. This was a late correction; as recently as December 2022, he had called for security guarantees for Russia in front of a domestic audience on the TF1 television channel. Moreover, at the GLOBSEC conference, he finally shelved French reticence on EU enlargement. Instead, Macron is now promoting the dynamics of enlargement, not only with regard to Ukraine and Moldova, but also the Western Balkans.

Contrary to initial skepticism in Berlin, the European Political Community was not conceived as a “waiting room” for EU applicants, but was established at the second summit in Moldova as a coherent forum for discussion directed against Russian imperialism. Longstanding Franco-German dissonance on the enlargement issue has thus been overcome, although that does not rule out conflicting demands on the accession process. But the French and the Germans are heading in the same direction.

Whether Macron’s conversion to the enlarged, “geopolitical” EU is capable of winning a majority in his own country is another matter. Constitutional Article 88.5 requires three-fifths majorities in both houses of parliament or a positive referendum result before ratification of an accession agreement (for candidates from 2004).

Macron’s praise of US President Joe Biden’s Ukraine engagement also drew attention, in stark contrast to the concern he expressed while on a flight in China about a “vassal” status for Europe. The French president coupled his appreciation for Biden with the comment that Europe must be prepared in the event of a change of power in Washington in 2024. “We cannot delegate our collective security to the decisions of American voters,” he said. It remains doubtful whether Scholz would express himself in this way.

The End of a Silent Agreement?

To this day, the transatlantic relationship seems to be the real Franco-German dividing line, which led the German parliament, the Bundestag, to add a pro-Atlantic preamble to the Élysée Treaty in early 1963. France, a founding member of NATO, must also be reproached for having blocked the way to a genuinely European army by the National Assembly’s rejection of the European defense community in 1954.

Nuclear sharing, which ties Germany to the United States, continues to be a source of irritation in Paris, as the reactions after the decision to buy US F-35 fighter jets showed. This is another reason why the “compromise machine” has to run at full speed on joint armament projects such as the FCAS fighter aircraft system and the MGCS tank system. In this context, the broad consensus on foreign policy forms the prerequisite for continued efforts to reach agreement.

This also applies to the dispute over air defense. The irritation over Berlin’s European Sky Shield Initiative was not cleared up at a conference at Le Bourget on June 19. While ostensibly about industrial contracts, the debate is really about whether Berlin will continue to accept France’s claim to leadership on strategic issues for Europe. The French sensitivities stem from the fear in Paris that Berlin has reneged on the silent agreement that Germany is the economic leader, but France, as a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, is the strategic one.

Precedence for Paris

When former French President Jacques Chirac traveled to Berlin 23 years ago for a state visit and gave a speech to the Bundestag, EU enlargement, at the time to the east, played the decisive role. It was then that Chirac first hinted at wanting to support a European constitutional treaty. Macron’s state visit again comes during an intense debate on enlargement. With his Bratislava speech, Macron has forged ahead. Acting as host, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has the task of sending out positive signals with a broad impact that go beyond day-to-day political business.

The former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died in 2015, wrote about this in his work Außer Dienst (“Off Duty”). Schmidt, who called Robert Schuman’s and Charles de Gaulle’s gestures of reconciliation to Germany “undeserved strokes of luck,” wished that the experience of reconciliation emanating from France would not be lost to us Germans. France alone had the opportunity to play a leading role in Europe, warned Schmidt, whom Scholz has described as a role model.

Schmidt wrote this, mind you, almost two decades after reunification. It was France that would set the direction and pace in the enlarged EU. For him, it was a matter of course to let the French take the lead on the world stage.

This legacy of Schmidt’s, at least as it is perceived in the Élysée Palace, is increasingly being forgotten. Macron’s state visit offers the opportunity to give France the esteem it thirsts for, also because of unresolved defeats like the one in Mali.

“Remember that France loves you!” said Macron, addressing Germans in a speech to the Bundestag in November 2018. Chancellor Scholz has promised a relationship “without sweet talk.” But perhaps some evidence of affection is needed after all, because otherwise the partnership will quickly turn into a rivalry.

Interest in the neighboring language is in decline. Fewer and fewer young French people are learning German, and it’s the same the other way around. Interest cannot be forced, but if it is to be awakened, then the state visit would be a good opportunity.

Michaela Wiegel is Paris correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).