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Jun 26, 2024

France, Germany, and the Nature of Europe

The Franco-German relationship remains irreplaceable for the EU. But it urgently needs to be renewed to include European goals.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz listens as French President Emmanuel Macron speaks to reporters on the day of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting at the German government's guest house, Schloss Meseberg castle north of Berlin, in Gransee, Germany, May 28, 2024.
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French President Emmanuel Macron’s state visit to Germany in May was good for Franco-German relations. After many months of a lack of unity, painstakingly concealed disappointment with each other, and sometimes public disputes, the friendship with the neighboring country was celebrated for three days. This also made up for what had been planned for last year on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Élysée Treaty in 1963. 

The visit fulfilled many expectations, and the French president inspired the Germans. In East and West Germany, Macron swept the audience away with his speeches, from the young people in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden to the dignitaries in the time-honored town hall in Münster. At times, there was indeed a hint of Charles de Gaulle and the enthusiasm that the first president of the Fifth Republic had aroused during his trip to Germany in 1962. 

One motif that has shaped Franco-German relations since the 1960s, and now also this state visit, is remembrance. In Berlin, at the side of Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Macron celebrated the 75th anniversary of the German constitution, known as the Basic Law, and the 35th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—a welcome opportunity to reaffirm their mutual friendship. Nevertheless, remembrance politics is often particularly popular at the highest level when unity in the political here and now has suffered.

There is currently no shortage of opportunities for such assurances, and there are many occasions this summer. The governments of both countries have declared the European Football Championships in Germany and the Olympic Games in Paris to be a “Franco-German summer of sport.” This seems a bit forced, but the impulse is welcome.

These are turbulent times, even for Europeans. The wars in Ukraine and Gaza are showing European Union citizens how defenseless they would be without the support of the United States. It can help to look back and realize that major challenges have been overcome in the past. On June 6, the 80th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy was commemorated, with German participation. Ten years ago, after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, negotiations began in the “Normandy format” under Franco-German leadership. The commemoration in Oradour-sur-Glane followed on June 10. In 1944, soldiers of the Waffen SS murdered 643 people there in a single day.

Reconciliation Becomes Routine

In Berlin at the end of May, Steinmeier called the fact that today, Germany and France remembering dark chapters of history together a proof of the “depth of friendship.” In fact, alongside remembrance, reconciliation between the two countries remains a historical achievement, a second central motif of a relationship that initiated and enabled the process of European unification. 

However, the most important lesson to be learned from the conflicts of recent months is that Franco-German cooperation is by no means a matter of course; on the contrary, it must be nurtured and passed on from generation to generation. There has never been a “hereditary enmity” between the two countries, but there is no “hereditary friendship” either. This is not a particularly new or innovative insight, but it is an essential one.

After all, while routine interaction was a desirable goal in the post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s, it now jeopardizes the relationship. In many places in Germany, the fatal impression has arisen that good relations with France are a given. In the face of dramatic global political developments, the German government is reflexively seeking proximity to the US, which remains its most important bilateral partner to this day, primarily because it guarantees European security. At the same time, German policy in Europe wants to focus on new partnerships and take account of the much-cited shift in the balance to the east. In August 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz outlined his vision of a future German leadership role in “Central Europe” in a keynote speech in Prague.

There has been little room for France and Franco-German relations in recent years. This impression has gradually grown in Paris and has solidified since the start of the renewed Russian attack on Ukraine. It would be unfair to attribute it solely to French disappointment at the lack of response from former Chancellor Angela Merkel and current Chancellor Scholz to Macron’s European visions since 2017. German politics has neglected its relationship with France, and the current German government now has the thankless task of dealing with this realization. Politicians from all parties have underestimated how much attention, care, and, yes, symbols are needed in the relationship with our neighboring country—even if Germany is having a hard time with pathos and symbolism.

However, on closer inspection, German politicians are not particularly to blame. If they attach less and less importance to Franco-German relations, this is representative of German society as a whole. Here, too, the past anniversary year was instructive. Many events were characterized by the insight that interest in France is declining. France is losing its status as a German vacation destination, now only in seventh place. Historically-grown town twinnings are often only maintained by committed pensioners and a few Franco-German idealists. Finally, there was a huge outcry in the arts pages when the closure of three Goethe Institutes in France in 2023 became public. But let’s be honest: Outside of a very small circle in the cultural sector, nobody was seriously bothered by these closures.

The Francophilia of the Bonn Republic of the 1960s and 1970s, with its broad social base, no longer exists. The times when student movements from both countries were in close contact, when the Nouvelle Vague also inspired enthusiasm in Germany, when existentialists and post-structuralists were read and discussed—these times are over. The death of Alfred Grosser, a German-born political scientist who later shaped the image of Germany for an entire generation in France, marks this turning point. His generation has retired and passed away. The fact that the late former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wished for a eulogy from Macron before his death can be interpreted as a final nod to a generation with close ties to France. And Macron did cause a stir in Berlin because he gave his speech in German. But the impression is deceptive: the number of people who speak the partner language has been falling in both countries for years.

Two former French ambassadors to Germany came to similar conclusions in 2023. Claude Martin and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne wrote about their rapprochement with Germany and, at the same time, about the estrangement between the two societies that they observed during their time in Berlin. The Franco-German relationship had lost its “emotional power,” wrote Gourdault-Montagne. It was now limited to economic exchange. It is fitting that despite the dwindling interest in France on the part of many Germans, trade balances between the two countries are currently better than ever before. If you ask the Franco-German Chamber of Commerce about the state of the relationship, the answers are mostly positive.

More Than Just a Market

This brings us closer to a core problem in Franco-German relations which is representative of the entire European unification process. Economically, networking in the EU is closer than ever before. Barriers and obstacles to trade are being dismantled with great success. At the same time, however, Europe’s citizens are becoming alienated from the project of European unification that was supposed to unite them. So, while the exchange of goods is functioning ever more smoothly, the exchange of ideas seems to be drying up or has already “dried up,” as Gourdault-Montagne writes.

One person who has been addressing the problem and trying to fight it since 2017 is Macron. Since the beginning of his term in office, close confidants of the president, including his long-standing Minister for Europe Clément Beaune, have confirmed that his approach to Europe is intellectual, not practical. Macron has not approached Europe through travel, and he is not a child of the Erasmus generation—even though he recently spoke about his experience as an exchange student in Dortmund during the state visit to Germany. He approached European unification primarily through the history of ideas, and this approach still determines his view of the EU today.

This became clear once again when Macron gave his second major speech on Europe at the Sorbonne in Paris in April. The first, from September 2017, is still cited today as the framework for his European policy vision. However, while the newly elected Macron made an optimistic promise for the future of the EU, the second version sounded more like a gloomy warning in places. The core message, which has been discussed since April and has been repeated several times by Macron himself, including during his three-day visit to Germany, is that the EU is mortal and that “It can die.” 

A Continent without Contours

Macron borrowed his warning from the French philosopher Paul Valéry. After World War I, he repeated the forgotten statement that not only people but also civilizations are mortal. Macron’s second speech at the Sorbonne contained a series of further allusions and borrowings in which the cultural pessimism of the most optimistic youngest president in French history flashed through. Back in 2018, on the occasion of the centenary commemoration of the end of the First World War, Macron appropriated a book title by Australian historian Christopher Clark and warned against the “sleepwalkers” of the new nationalism. In April, he confessed to being influenced by the “ironic pessimism” of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, with whom he regularly exchanges ideas.

Sloterdijk himself considers Macron to be far-sighted with his French geopolitical world view and an exception in the European Union. Currently a professor at the College de France in Paris, Sloterdijk opened the lecture series “The Invention of Europe through Languages and Cultures” there at the beginning of April. He titled his inaugural lecture “The Continent without Qualities: Bookmarks in the Book of Europe.” We can assume that Macron read the lecture. The president sounded similar a few days later in his second Sorbonne speech, saying the EU “no longer produces grand narratives,” it does not demonstrate a future; it consumes instead of producing.

Macron has repeatedly tried to change this, to revive debates about the EU’s unique selling points, which could have an identity-creating effect in the future. Democracy is not the answer; it has already proven to be a bestseller, even if it has recently suffered in many regions of the world, including Europe itself. The EU’s motto, “unity in diversity,” offers a second approach to a common identity. Macron and his diplomats attempted to breathe new life into the motto as part of the French EU Council Presidency in 2022. A series of colloquia focused on multilingualism and cultural diversity, and Macron called for more efforts to promote a common cultural heritage in Europe. However, as with the closure of the Goethe Institutes, the initiatives met with little interest from the EU states and even less from the citizens.

This raises the question of what the EU is. And what role Germany and France can and want to play in European integration in the future. The question is by no means only suitable for lectures and colloquia, far removed from the concerns and needs of EU citizens. Even though European unification began with the Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), it has always been based on the conviction of the people that war must be prevented in the future after the devastation of Europe in 1914-18 and 1939-45. The EU is indeed a very successful peace project. Decades passed without war on European Union territory. The post-war generation had done its job.

However, given the Russian war in Ukraine and the instability of its US ally, the continent is now facing an epochal change. The EU suddenly has to be able to defend itself. The so-called “Peace Facility” is being used to purchase ammunition and weapons that are being used to kill in Ukraine. And the French president was awarded the Westphalian Peace Prize in Münster—for his efforts toward European integration and for not letting the thread of dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin break—while Macron simultaneously engaged in nuclear rhetoric toward the Kremlin, even no longer ruling out the deployment of French troops in Ukraine. The tools of Europe’s past do not yet quite fit the new tasks, as is becoming clear in many places these days.

And yet, a new task for the next generation could arise based on this transformation of the EU. The post-war generation has brought decades of peace and unprecedented prosperity to the EU member states. To preserve these achievements, a new external image is now needed. Suddenly, there was talk of a “geopolitical commission” in Brussels. This is still a long way off, with the EU barely managing to step out of the shadow of NATO and the comfort of US security guarantees. However, a new generation could now find its task is securing the EU externally. This may be a less idealistic task than the previous one, but it is nevertheless necessary.

Time Is of the Essence

Sloterdijk calls the EU a “post-imperial entity.” It is now confronted with the fact that the rest of the world has not yet buried its imperial aspirations. Even at the beginning of the millennium, it was said that Americans were “from Mars” and Europeans “from Venus.” Today, this difference, which Germany probably struggles with the most, is used in various metaphors in European debates. In France, the Darwinian linguistic image of European “vegetarians” is used; in danger of being eaten in a world of carnivores—a phrase already coined by Sigmar Gabriel as German foreign minister. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was heavily criticized at the end of 2022 when he spoke of a European garden—and the jungle at Europe’s gates.

Time is now pressing for the Europeans, also because skepticism has long since spread within their ranks. In the European elections, parties that derive their own reform agenda from the supposed naivety of the EU have made gains. They give the impression that they have a clear idea of what needs to change for the states of Europe to “regain control:” regarding climate policy, immigration policy, and the European unification process. Their promises seem to appeal to many young people, especially young men. 

It is possible that France will soon be governed by a prime minister from the far-right Rassemblement National. President Macron’s decision on June 9, in response to the devastating result for his party in the European Parliament election, to dissolve the National Assembly and hold a snap election was a desperate attempt at reversing the trend toward Europeans retreating to the nation-state. If it’s not already too late, it is thus high time to give a new generation long-term European goals and a common task, creating an EU that can protect its citizens in the world of tomorrow. Germany and France must lead the way.

Jacob Ross is Research Fellow for France and Franco-German relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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