Jan 19, 2023

A New Foundation for Franco-German Friendship

On January 22, 1963, the Franco-German Treaty of Friendship was signed in the Élysée Palace. Over the intervening six decades, a united EU has also been built on this foundation. But it is now in urgent need of renewal.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as he arrives to attend an informal summit of EU leaders at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace), amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Versailles, near Paris, France, March 10, 2022.
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Franco-German discord was on everyone's lips at the end of last year. The cancellation of the Ministerial Council in October 2022 was followed by a cascade of negative news. Some commentators even questioned the future of bilateral relations as a whole. Diplomats and politicians on both sides of the Rhine struggled to snatch coverage back.

Even away from the canceled joint cabinet meetings and press conferences, the two countries did not look good: In terms of military support for Ukraine, Germany and France were being outclassed by the United Kingdom and the United States; there was no sign of European Union sovereignty or even autonomy. And when progress was made, as most recently with the delivery of armored fighting vehicles, the announcements came in an uncoordinated manner and gave rise to new speculation about a rift and competition for the leadership role within the EU.

On energy policy which, alongside defense policy since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has undoubtedly been the key issue for Europe, differences became even more pronounced around the end of the year. The gas price brake was a bone of contention, as was the construction of new pipelines to supply Europe. On the electricity market, the unusually warm weather allayed fears of a blackout. But when it did turn cold briefly in early December, temperatures rose in newspaper editorial offices and TV talk shows in both countries.

In France, Germany’s “ideologically-based” adherence to the nuclear phase-out was blamed for the precarious state of the European electricity market. In Germany, France’s aging nuclear reactors were identified as the reason for the plight. A declaration of solidarity hastily signed between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne for mutual electricity and gas supplies was lost in the recriminations.

More than Personal Dissatisfaction

The fact that no Franco-German agreement was reached despite enormous pressure on issues of energy and defense policy is attributed to the allegedly poor personal relationship between Chancellor Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron. This reading is based on the decades-old practice of measuring Franco-German relations by the personal relationship of the "couple" at the head of government or state.

And why not? After all, in a democracy, heads of state and government represent the populations that elected them. But focusing on the personalities at the top in Germany and France obscures the fact that something more fundamental is in motion. A Franco-German estrangement is underway that will not end even if, contrary to expectations, the Hanseatic Scholz is replaced by a Francophile Rhinelander akin to Konrad Adenauer who signed the Élysée Treaty with French President Charles de Gaulle on January 22, 1963.

German Crisis of French Thought

To understand the reasons for this alienation, it is worth taking a look at the recent past. As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Europe in the spring of 2020, a doctoral thesis presented at the Sorbonne University in 1959 was rediscovered in Paris. Under the title “The German Crisis of French Thought,” the literary scholar Claude Digeon examined the zeitgeist of the Belle Époque, between France's military defeat by Prussia and its allies in 1871 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. In his work, Digeon described in detail French society’s obsession with its eastern neighbor.

Allegedly, rereading the text in 2020 was recommended by the highest authorities. Of course, Germany and France were not facing war at the beginning of the pandemic. To be sure, Macron had already warned in 2018, on the occasion of the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I and alluding to the book by historian Christopher Clarke, that he did not want to belong to a new “generation of sleepwalkers.” But he was referring to the reawakening of nationalism in Europe that he had diagnosed, not to Franco-German relations. Nevertheless, there again seemed to be a “German crisis” in French thinking, even if the occasion was incomparably less dramatic than after the military defeat of 1871 and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine.

Imbalance in Bilateral Relations

In fact, Germany has always been an important reference for French policy. The “German model” is used as a comparison, for example in the current debate on pension reform. These comparisons often turn out to be unfavorable for France, because the economic balance between the neighbors has shifted since the beginning of the 2008 sovereign debt and euro crisis. Two key figures make this clear: As recently as 2009, the per capita gross domestic product was roughly the same in both countries at around €29,000. In 2021, Germany’s GDP was more than €6,000 higher than that of France. The national debt ratio also developed completely differently between 2008 and 2021. It went from a comparable 66 percent in Germany and 68 percent in France in 2008, to 69 percent in Germany and 113 percent in France in 2021, before the launch of programs to combat the economic consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine.

These figures conceal far-reaching consequences for the bilateral relationship. In the early 2010s, France was by far the most important buyer of German goods. A decade later, Germany's western neighbor has slipped to fourth place, behind China, the United States, and the Netherlands. Accordingly, the relationship with these countries has received greater attention from German companies and employees, and thus also from policymakers.

At the same time, Germany has always remained at the top of the list of French trading partners. So, it is hardly surprising that the questioning of the German economic model, as a result of the break with Russia and the uncertain future of trade relations with China, is noted with some satisfaction in France, sometimes even with open glee. And so now there is less talk about the “German model” and more about its end.

The Partner Country Is Losing Significance

But while Germany remains a reference point in France as a negative example in case of doubt, France often no longer even features in the social debate in Germany. The disinterest is palpable in many places: Training at Strasbourg’s INSP (formerly ENA), once a prestigious addition to the careers of German diplomats, is now of little interest at the German Foreign Office. And instead of networking in Paris, officials on exchanges there prefer to go back home at weekends.

Journalists report from German newsrooms that French issues are not of interest. It's hard to imagine a correspondent reporting today from Paris like legendary TV journalist Ulrich Wickert once did while crossing the Place de la Concorde, bringing the neighboring country to a wide audience in Germany.

The alienation has long been measurable not only in economic and media terms. At the end of 2022, the premier of the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Federal Republic's plenipotentiary for cultural affairs, Hendrik Wüst, together with the French Education Minister Pap Ndiaye, and the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, presented a strategy paper on promoting the partner language. In the foreword, Wüst and Ndiaye wrote that the number of teachers has been decreasing “slightly but steadily” for several years. That is, to put it politely, quite an understatement. Teachers’ associations and societies have been sounding the alarm about these numbers for years. An association for the promotion of German language teaching in France reported last year that 72 percent of the positions for German teachers remained unfilled. However, these reports as well as the strategy paper are barely noticed by the general public.

Bilingualism Is Wobbling

At the same time, the understanding of the partner language has generally been considered a foundation of the Franco-German relationship since the signing of the Élysée Treaty. The strategy paper also emphasizes the “elementary importance of language as the key to mutual understanding.” If one follows this logic, with dwindling language skills in the coming years, understanding of the partner country will inevitably diminish. Even negotiations for the Aachen Treaty signed in January 2019, the 10th chapter of which commits both governments to promoting the partner language, showed that such language skills are now the exception rather than the rule, even in government circles: Ironically, the Aachen Treaty was negotiated in English.

Accordingly, the voices that want to detach relations between Germany and France from their linguistic foundation are growing louder. Exchange formats at all levels could take place in English in the future. And wouldn’t this step be consistent? After all, interest in the neighboring country, in its language and culture, cannot be dictated by politics. Young French people who move to Berlin in droves today often don’t learn German. They come because Berlin is an international (and often English-speaking) metropolis and not to get to know Germany, or the German language and culture. But if curiosity about the language and culture of the neighboring country no longer attracts them, what will?

A Partnership in Search of Meaning

In any case, it won’t be the old narrative of reconciliation between the former “hereditary enemies.” Of course, the memory of war and destruction must remain a part of Franco-German relations. Macron's warnings that the European continent could once again be plunged into ruin by sleepwalkers are justified. But bilateral reconciliation has long ceased to bear fruit as the guiding principle of the relationship with France. When, in the excitement surrounding the cancellation of the Franco-German Ministerial Council last October, the French writer Jacques Attali wrote that a war between Germany and France was again conceivable, he seemed out of touch with the times.

It is obvious that the Franco-German relationship needs a new narrative, a common thread. Since the Brexit referendum, “Global Britain” has been pulled to pieces on countless occasions. Proposals for the future of one’s own country in the EU have, on the other hand, remained scarce. In the long term, gloating over political U-turns and economic damage in London cannot hide the fact that integration on the continent is flagging. Centrifugal forces within the EU are growing stronger, partly because things are no longer moving forward.

Germany and France are in the spotlight. After all, both countries were the driving forces behind genuine turning points in the past, for example when the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. There is no sign of historical successes of such magnitude today. Recently, structural problems in the EU have been glossed over with a lot of money (as in the case of NextGenerationEU post-pandemic recovery fund), and with bilateral relations, projects such as the Franco-German youth ticket (which undoubtedly makes sense) have had to serve as great success stories.

But it needs more than joint train tickets. It needs a new, major goal, for the Franco-German relationship and for the European unification process. Something that young Germans, French, and Europeans can participate in and that inspires them, a task for a generation. Ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine and the escalating conflict between the United States and China have recently highlighted the urgent need for more EU sovereignty. The notion has gripped all policy fields and economic sectors, from climate and energy policy to agricultural and health policy to defense policy—a huge success for Macron, and one on which much more should be built regarding Franco-German relations and European cooperation.

Foundations for a New Project

The slogan that Macron’s party used in the 2019 European election campaign—"A Europe that protects”—has lost none of its relevance, on the contrary. But filling it with life by the next European elections in 2024 will require more than a Conference on the Future of Europe, which the vast majority of EU citizens have never heard of. It also needs more than a handful of major defense projects with incomprehensible acronyms like FCAS and MGCS that no one outside interested circles knows about.

France must resist the Gaullist reflex of regarding European cooperation as merely an amplifier for its own voice in the world. And Germany must finally find its own voice, take up French proposals, and stop using European unanimity as a fig leaf for its own indecision.

Instead of discussing completely unrealistic goals in the distant future, such as the European federal state envisioned in the German coalition agreement, over the next three years uninterrupted by national elections, the governments in Berlin and Paris should focus on laying the foundations for a new project that will outlast Macron and Scholz.

Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, and the 1963 Élysée Treaty should be commended. There will always be crises. The most important thing is that both countries are moving together in the right direction.

Jacob Ross is a Research Fellow in the France/Franco-German Relations Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

Kenny Kremer is a Program Assistant in the France/Franco-German Relations Program at the DGAP.

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