Jun 26, 2024

The Fractured Relationship

Franco-German relations have been rocky of late, but recently, they seemed to have taken a turn for the better. If France’s parliament is now conquered by the far right or becomes deadlocked, that relationship is likely to become even more deeply fractured. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron walk through the garden of the German government guest house Meseberg Palace to the Franco-German Ministerial Council in Meseberg, north of Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, May 28, 2024.
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The postwar history of the relationship between France and Germany has always been one of ups and downs. In recent years, however, the appearance of solidity and permanence has been undercut by ever-wilder rollercoaster rides, often instigated from the top. 

Disappointed about what he’d perceived as Germany’s lackluster responses to his many initiatives, in October 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron called off the Franco-German Ministerial Council, the regular meeting between the two governments. While this was played down massively in Berlin, the sense in Paris was one of a deep intake of breath: “Olalaf”, ran the headline of the left-wing Libération newspaper, referring to the German chancellor. Ou-la-la indeed.

And behind closed doors, members of Olaf Scholz’s government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) were well aware that a crisis point had been reached with the country supposedly always closest to the heart of postwar Germany. After Macron’s affront, German diplomacy worked tirelessly to rebuild the relationship with France’s president, culminating in Macron’s state visit to Germany this May—the first by a French president in 24 years. The emotional side of Macron’s visit in particular was balm for an often-fractured relationship.

Only a few weeks later, the relationship is at risk again and may become more deeply fractured than ever in the past 75 years. Macron’s rash decision to dissolve the French parliament and call snap elections after a disappointing result in the European Parliament elections could well turn out to be his Waterloo, as Joseph de Weck writes in this issue dedicated to the Franco-German relationship. It could usher in a new prime minister, Jordan Bardella, from Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (Le Pen would then be in pole position for the next presidential elections in 2027). Or it could bring France’s left to power, which has built a New Popular Front to stem the tide of the far right. 

Macron’s centrist Renaissance party and its allies are in danger of being squeezed by both sides. A hung parliament and the ensuing chaos currently look like a best-case scenario. The spending plans of both the far right and the left could well push highly indebted France into a financial crisis very quickly that would engulf the whole eurozone. Europe would experience a crisis like it had never faced before.

It is exactly the future of Europe that is at the core of the Franco-German relationship, argues Jacob Ross in this issue; if it’s not too late, the younger generations of both countries need to build a new understanding. Mathieu Droin and Gesine Weber propose a “hybrid” Franco-German engine that still can power Europe. Claire Demesmay looks at the weakening cultural relationship between the two countries, which still offers lessons to others, while Ludovic Subran makes the case for a Franco-German industrial policy that would benefit the whole of the European Union. 

Of course, it is futile to hanker after the “good old times,” including when it comes to the France-German relationship. There have always been fundamental differences which, during the 1960s and beyond, split (West) Germany’s foreign policy establishment into “Gaullists” and “Atlanticists.” Former Interior and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was one of the latter. “France was chic during the 1950s and 1960s, whether we were talking movies or fashion”, Schäuble wrote in his memoirs. “Politically, however, for me the United States were the real guarantor of freedom and our way of life.” It is exactly this transatlantic instinct, which also deeply informs the Scholz government, that has contributed to the recent friction.

Still, Schäuble was considered one of Germany’s greatest “Europeans” and a true friend of France. When he died in March, he was eulogized in Berlin by Macron who in doing so fulfilled Schäuble’s deeply-held last wish. When we interviewed Schäuble, then president of the German parliament, in 2018, he strongly “advised against any arrogance” on Germany’s part but mixed his expression of admiration for France with a little bit of mischief-making: “Do not underestimate France—it’s a great country,” he insisted, adding: “That’s what I always told the Chinese, who didn’t want to believe it.” Contrast this with people close to Chancellor Scholz this spring talking of a “bankrupt” Macron whose “boots on the ground in Ukraine” idea was grandstanding—and all that was left for the French president to do. It did sound a bit arrogant.

France’s greatness is not in doubt. Rather, it’s the sense of responsibility of its political elites that causes deep worries in Germany and beyond; in turn, Germany’s political class will be unable to shrug off accusations of having missed countless chances since 2017, when Macron came to power, to engage more positively with France and reinvent and future-proof the relationship so crucial for Europe. Should the continent avoid a step into the abyss this summer, this must become the most urgent task.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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