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Jun 26, 2024

The Growing Chasm Between French and German Political Parties

German and French political parties that might ostensibly share the same traditions and ideologies are actually moving further and further apart. 

French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party leader Marine Le Pen and Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Jorg Meuthen address a joint news conference on the formation of a new far-right European Parliament group to represent nationalists' interests at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium June 13, 2019.
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France and Germany make an odd couple. When the governments of the two countries manage to formulate common positions or ideas, these often carry real weight in solving problems or pushing forward projects on the European or the international scale. But in recent years, the two countries have also diverged on many key issues: on the governance of the eurozone and compliance with the convergence criteria, on the degree of autonomy of the European Union vis-à-vis NATO and the United States, on bilateral cooperation on armaments, on the deployment of ground troops in Ukraine, and on the role of nuclear power in the fight against climate change.

Two Very Different Countries

To explain these differences, it is important to remember that all states have different interests which they try to defend. In addition to this, German and French political structures are also very different: Germany’s political governance is that of a federal country, whereas France’s is a centralized one. France is a nuclear—both civilian and military—power, has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and has overseas departments and territories that were once colonized. Germany has none of these. On the other hand, Germany is an industrial and commercial power—unlike France, which is largely de-industrialized and suffers from a chronic trade deficit. Finally, since 1949, Germany has been governed by a British-inspired parliamentary system, whereas France has opted for a presidential system.

Admittedly, there are similarities between French and German politics. In both countries, the far right is on the rise, as shown in the recent European Parliament elections. The liberals are in retreat, and the Social Democrats, left-wing Socialists, as well as the Greens, are facing great difficulty. But despite these parallels, the differences prevail. First, France has always had a right-left divide, largely due to its electoral system (two-round majority system), as is the case in the United Kingdom and the United States. As a result, France does not have the tradition of multi-party coalitions that force centrist policies. In Germany, the opposite is true. The mixed proportional voting system makes coalitions essential for forming governments, and these coalitions force governments to pursue centrist policies, particularly since 2005. Thus, under the former Chancellor Angela Merkel, her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), had no choice but to move closer to the center. Today, under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the same applies to his center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. 

The German and French Center Right Worlds Apart

These constraints make dialogue between the French and German sister parties very difficult, if not impossible, even if they are represented in the same political groups in the European Parliament. For example, the post-Gaullist party Les Républicains (LR) is much further to the right than its German counterpart, the CDU/CSU; nevertheless, both are members of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). While the Christian Democrats have erected a barrier against the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in early June, the president of LR, Éric Ciotti, declared himself in favor of an alliance with the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) for the snap French parliamentary elections that President Emmanuel Macron called after his party won only half the votes of the RN in the European elections. 

The ideology and electoral program of LR, as well as the societal values defended by this party, are situated much further to the right of the political spectrum than the ideas and political proposals of Germany’s Christian Democrats. The CDU has, therefore, naturally drawn closer to Macron’s centrist Renaissance party, while this formation, created by Macron in 2017, has chosen the ALDE political group (i.e. the Liberals) within the European Parliament, where it has taken the name “Renew Europe.” 

Therefore, this would make Renaissance’s German partner the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), who are also members of the ALDE group. However, Macron’s economic policy has nothing in common with that of the FDP. The German party defends the logic of controlling public spending and balancing the budget, whereas under Macron, France’s budget deficit has always been above 3 percent (except in 2017 when Macron came to power), and public debt has risen from 98.3 percent of GDP in 2017 to 112.3 percent in summer 2024. 

The FDP advocates great restraint when it comes to public investment, while Emmanuel Macron is in favor of state-funded investment that prepares for the future. Macron wants to redefine the eurozone’s budgetary rules, while Christian Lindner, the leader of the FDP and Germany’s finance minister, is vehemently opposed. Under these conditions, any dialogue between the French and German liberal right is proving to be very complicated.

A Divided Extreme Right

The French and German extreme right are also on the road to divorce. Having come together in the European Parliament’s Identity & Democracy (ID) political group since 2019, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) forced the AfD out of the group in May 2024. When the new European Parliament is constituted, the AfD will be without a political grouping. 

This divorce can be explained by the two parties’ different political strategies. For the last ten years or so, the RN has been pursuing a policy known as “de-demonization,” and therefore de-radicalization. The aim is to forge closer ties with the Republican right in France to ally with the potential to win a majority. This strategy has enabled the RN to make considerable progress in terms of votes in recent elections, particularly the European vote in June. 

The AfD’s strategy is diametrically opposed to that of the RN. Admittedly, the AfD is also progressing in Germany, but it has half as many votes as the RN. But above all, unlike the RN, the AfD is radicalizing, opening up to so-called "völkisch" or nationalist ideology, which the RN is rejecting. Both parties are clearly hostile to further EU integration. However, the AfD advocates a "Dexit," while the RN has abandoned the idea of a "Frexit" (the French are opposed to such a policy). 

Above all, representatives of the AfD are in favor of the forced return of immigrants living now in Germany, even if they have obtained a legal status or even German citizenship in the meantime (this is the theme of “remigration”)—a demand that has been rejected and strongly criticized by the RN. Cooperation between the RN and the AfD seems, therefore, quite impossible today, especially as parts of the AfD are cultivating more or less openly the memory of the Nazi state while the RN celebrates the memory of a France that resisted the Nazi occupation (even though one of its founders, Pierre Bousquet, was a member of the Waffen-SS). Political dialogue between the RN and the AfD has now broken down (even if both share the common stance of being supportive of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and against support for Ukraine).

Two Opposing Lefts

The French and German parties on the left are also very different. The German Greens’ raison d’être is the rejection of nuclear power, and they have succeeded in forcing Germany’s nuclear phase-out. Politically, on the other hand, even though they broadly come from the German left, they have no difficulty in forming a coalition with the CDU. This is already the case at the regional level, and they would certainly not be opposed to a similar coalition at the national level. The French Greens, however, are firmly anchored on the left and perhaps even closer to the extreme left than to the French Parti Socialiste (PS). To work together with the post-Gaullist LR would be inconceivable for the French Greens. Then again, they fully accept France's nuclear policy. 

There are also major differences between the two center-left parties, Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD)—the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz— and the French PS. Admittedly, there is a Social Democratic current within the French PS, but it is in the minority. On economic, budgetary, and societal issues, the French PS is much more left-leaning than the German SPD (even though the SPD also has a powerful left-wing). The SPD, like the German Greens, is hostile to nuclear power, which is not the case with the French PS. 

The result of these differences is that on economic, budgetary, military, and energy issues, the political debate between the SPD and the PS is very difficult. But above all, another major difference is that the PS has made a nationwide alliance with the French far left, La France insoumise (LFI), in both the 2022 and the now upcoming parliamentary 2024 elections, for which they have formed a New Popular Front. Such an alliance would be impossible in Germany, where the SPD has formed a coalition with Die Linke only at the regional level but has sworn it would not do so at the national level (or indeed, today, the new far-left party, Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht or BSW) because of the positions of the German far left on international issues such as NATO, the EU, and Russia. The positions of LFI on international and EU issues are even more radical than those of Die Linke and BSW, but this in no way prevents the PS from forming an alliance with the LFI whenever this is necessary. 

In conclusion, there is very little political, ideological, or programmatic convergence between the German parties and their French colleagues. Everything separates them and prevents them from working together, either bilaterally or increasingly even within the European Parliament. The LR members of the European Parliament have announced that they will not support Ursula von der Leyen for a second term as president of the European Commission, while the CDU is threatening the LR with exclusion from the EPP group if they form an alliance with the RN. This is highly symbolic of the political divisions between France and Germany. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that Berlin and Paris fail so often to agree on key issues.

Hans Stark is a Professor of German Studies at Sorbonne University.