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Jun 26, 2024

How Franco-German Cultural Relations Have Waned

While the people of France and Germany have a largely positive image of the other country, that does not mean that they know or feel a particular empathy for each other.

A member of the German delegation holds a tote bag featuring a drawing by French cartoonist Plantu as she walks in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace after a meeting with German Finance Minister, Vice-Chancellor and the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) main candidate Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron (not seen) in Paris, France, September 6, 2021.
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At both the collective and individual level, few peoples maintain as many bilateral contacts as the French and Germans. This forms a dense network of partnerships, based on a multitude of associations ranging from choirs to business circles, not to mention the 2,200 twinning arrangements between towns and villages. While it is difficult to measure the impact of these exchanges on political processes, it can be assumed that they have helped to improve and stabilize the image of the neighboring country. Similarly, in the case of disputes between the two governments, even though the tone of media coverage is often alarmist, political tensions seem to leave few traces at the level of the two societies. As if the net woven over decades were contributing to a certain form of resilience.

It is revealing that Franco-German cooperation has never yet been disavowed by the general public, despite a certain lack of interest in the neighboring country and the attacks it has suffered for several years on the edges of the political spectrum—particularly in France, on both the right and left. The end of the “permissive consensus” that has been regularly mentioned in connection with European integration since the 1990s does not seem to apply to cooperation between France and Germany, even though the two phenomena are closely linked.

Private Public Partnership

Since the 1950s, civil society stakeholders and political and administrative leaders have been working together to further the Franco-German cause. Private individuals and associations have not only provided the impetus for the creation of an institutionalized system of exchanges, but have also driven it forward. Politicians seized upon these initiatives, relaying and supporting them, and creating dedicated institutions such as the Franco-German Youth Office in 1963 and the Franco-German University in 1997. 

Among the many Franco-German institutions created in recent decades, some are specifically dedicated to culture and cultural exchange between the two countries. These include, of course, the ARTE television channel (1991), but also the Franco-German High Cultural Council (1988) to promote cultural exchange in the fields of art and culture and to facilitate links between the civil societies of the two countries, as well as the Franco-German Film Academy (2011), set up with the aim of creating a “Europe of films.”

In line with this paradigm of promoting and democratizing civil society exchanges, the two governments set up the Franco-German Citizen Fund in 2020, designed to provide greater support for grassroots cooperation initiatives. This is enshrined in the bilateral Aachen Treaty signed in 2019 and fills a gap in the bilateral relationship in the associative field. While young people can take advantage of a wide range of offers, adults have so far received only limited support. Yet many associations are experiencing difficulties, not only of a financial nature, but also in renewing their offerings. The success of the fund, which supported over 900 projects in 2023, testifies to the scale of the need in this area.

The contacts forged between people on both sides of the Rhine have contributed to the strong public support for Franco-German cooperation, both bilaterally and in the European context. In the 1950s, mistrust and animosity prevailed. But since the 1980s, and right up to the present day, France and Germany have enjoyed a very positive image among the population of the partner country. For the contemporary period, survey figures vary according to the polling institute and the wording of the questions asked, but all invariably point to a high level of mutual sympathy.

survey carried out in 2013 by Ifop found that 83 percent of respondents in France and 87 percent in Germany had a positive image of their partner country. Another survey, carried out a decade later by the German embassy in France, found that 89 percent of respondents in the country had a positive image of Germany. A different survey, also conducted in 2023, found that 76 percent of Germans and 63 percent of the French considered close cooperation with a neighboring country to be important or very important in the future too. 

Partnership Instead of Friendship

The image of the partner country is a positive one, but it is not synonymous with either knowledge or emotional attachment. While there is widespread support for cooperation, perceptions are still largely marked by stereotypes. For example, a survey carried out in France at the end of 2022 asked respondents what words they associated with Germany. The three terms most often cited were “rigor,” “work,” and “economic power” (91 percent, 88 percent, and 87 percent respectively). What’s more, the neighboring country is seen more as a partner than a friend. In this context, it is significant that in 2023, the year of the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty, the term most often associated with Franco-German friendship by the French respondents is “partnership,” (53 percent), far ahead of “friendship” (32 percent) or even “trust” (29 percent). 

There was no comparable survey for Germany conducted at the same or time, but a survey carried out in both countries 10 years earlier reveals similar trends—despite differences in the relationship between the two countries, with “friendship” only garnering 30 percent in France and 40 percent in Germany, “trust” 16 percent and 20 percent respectively, while “partnership” was chosen by 69 percent of respondents in France and 59 percent in Germany.

The importance attached by the public to Franco-German cooperation goes hand in hand with a “decline in mutual interest”—as the authors of the study published to mark the 75th anniversary of the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg put it. Of those questioned, 63 percent in France and 41 percent in Germany said they had little or no interest in the partner country. In addition to the striking difference in results between the two countries, these data reflect a utilitarian approach to the Franco-German relationship, both conciliatory and dispassionate, in the negative as well as the positive sense. A normalized relationship in which sentimentality plays only a secondary role.

In this context, the continuing decline in partner-country language learning and the difficulties in recruiting German teachers in France are problematic, since language skills enable not only communication, but also intercultural experiences that can prove decisive. The closure of three Goethe Institutes in Bordeaux, Lille, and Strasbourg announced in the fall of 2023, which has provoked a violent storm of protest, particularly in Franco-German civil society, is likely to contribute further to this estrangement between the two populations—in terms of cultural and linguistic knowledge, as well as mutual interest.

Exporting the Franco-German Experience

It’s the people of France and Germany who benefit from exchange offers and take part in the activities of associations, and it’s also to them that official communication on bilateral cooperation is addressed—the obligatory discourse on “Franco-German friendship” and the iconography of “Franco-German couples” that accompanies it. But beyond this, the Franco-German experience is also perceived and observed in other countries and regions of the world.

The normalization of the bilateral relationship to which youth exchanges in particular have contributed is an undeniable success, which other countries are tempted to emulate. This is the case in the Western Balkans with the creation in 2016 of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), an organization supporting exchanges between young people from six of these states. Similarly, the Franco-German history teaching manual has been a source of inspiration for historians in Southeast Asia. While the Franco-German experience is unique, and as such cannot be considered a model, it can be seen as a reference from which it is possible and useful to draw inspiration in very different situations, particularly where there has been (or is) conflict.

There is a certain logic in the two governments’ decision to extend this policy to civil society, this time targeting not just their own nationals, but populations outside the two countries. This is the purpose of the Integrated Franco-German Cultural Institutes, whose creation has been announced as a priority project to accompany the 2019 Aachen Treaty. Whereas cultural diplomacy has hitherto been confined to national instruments, these institutes aim to conduct joint cultural activities in locations as diverse as Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), and Palermo (Italy), where the first of them, entitled “Kultur Ensemble,” was inaugurated in June 2021.

It’s not an easy undertaking, given the divergent approaches and instruments of cultural diplomacy in the two countries. However, if the experiment succeeds, it will have the merit of establishing a Franco-German, and through it European, presence on the international stage. 

For some years now, there has been a fierce struggle between competing value systems, in which new players such as China are very much in evidence, and European states have every interest in joining forces and adopting common strategies. However, such actions must not be to the detriment of bilateral cultural cooperation, as the closure of Goethe Institutes in France at the end of 2023 could lead us to fear.

Claire Demesmay is Alfred Grosser Professor at Sciences Po Paris (2024/2025) and associate researcher at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin.

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