No Zeitenwende in Paris
Germany is in the middle of a vibrant debate about its future foreign policy and to what extent to help Urkaine. In France, Macron decides alone. Strangely, two different political cultures produce the same policy results.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
There is certainly no shortage of Franco-German disputes these days. But when it comes to how far to support Ukraine and how to deal with Russia, Paris and Berlin are pretty much aligned.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron both say they will stand with Ukraine “as long as necessary” and say it is up to Kyiv to decide if and when it is time to negotiate.
Both countries’ arms deliveries to Ukraine are significant, but pale in comparison with the United Kingdom and some Central and Eastern European countries, considering their size. This is because both their armies are running low on supplies themselves, but also because Berlin and Paris worry more about Moscow’s nuclear threats than about Kyiv winning the war all the way. They thus remain hesitant about delivering “offensive” arms.
Last but not least, both powers, as parties to the ill-fated Minsk agreements (together with Ukraine and Russia), think that they should play a key role in any post-war European security architecture. Both keep signaling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that they would be willing to reengage with him if he changes course and ends the war.
Also, looking at public attitudes toward the war, the picture is nearly identical on both sides of the Rhine. According to an October poll, two thirds of the French and Germans approve the sanctions against Russia. Roughly 60 percent of the French and Germans endorse weapons deliveries as well as Ukrainian EU membership. Conversely, 20 percent of Germans and 16 percent of French people say they still have a “good opinion” of Russia.
If there is no Franco-German divide on Ukraine policy, the public debate about the issue could not be more different in the two countries.
Germany’s First Foreign Policy Debate
Foreign policy has rarely been a big issue in post-1945 German politics. As the focal point of the Cold War, the Federal Republic had little room for maneuver in foreign affairs. Instead, Bonn focused on co-building what was later to become the EU and making its citizens wealthy and thereby their East German brothers and sisters jealous. And once 1989 passed, Germans grew accustomed to the benefits of a cautious Swiss-style foreign policy focused on multilateralism and business.
The 1999 Kosovo war for the first time forced a reunited Germany out of this comfort zone. Should Germany give up its military restraint? The decision to support the NATO operation was a major turning point in the country that for long equated the maxim of “Nie wieder Krieg” (“No more wars”) with military non-intervention. But the debate was brief. The NATO operation lasted less than two months. Very quickly, German politics turned again to domestic issues, such as the fight against unemployment or the exit from nuclear energy pushed by the Greens.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is different. Germany is having its biggest foreign policy debate in decades—because the war is ongoing and Putin’s calculus has brought into question central tenants of German foreign, but also economic policy. And because unlike Kosovo in 1999, the debate is not only about morality. The decisions Scholz must take with respect to Ukraine involve risks and trade-offs comprising key German interests.
And in this political debate, Chancellor Scholz is under constant fire.
Germany’s weekly TV debate shows relentlessly discuss the war and Germany’s role in it. Should sanctions be strengthened, more and heavier weapons delivered to Kyiv? Should Scholz launch an initiative to negotiate an armistice? Is former Chancellor Angela Merkel to blame for the war?
Not only in the talk shows, but also in the Bundestag, Chancellor Scholz is permanently challenged on Ukraine. By the opposition of course, but also by deputies from the parties in his own coalition government. Some MPs from the governing parties, his own Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), even joined with the opposition to pass a resolution forcing the Scholz government to deliver “heavy weapons” to Ukraine. And the debate goes beyond Ukraine. How to deal with an increasingly authoritarian China, Germany’s biggest trade partner, has become the focus of an open dispute within the government coalition.
Sure, Germany’s “Zeitenwende” still has a long way to go. The proof of Scholz’ promised rethink of German foreign policy remains in the pudding. Shaking off old reflexes and overcoming established thought patterns is terribly hard, as every behavioral therapist knows. But there is no doubt that Germany’s politics and civil society is wrestling with the war and fighting over what the guiding principles of Germany’s foreign policy should be for the future.
By contrast in France, Ukraine is almost absent from the political debate. None of Macron’s allies and not even the opposition thinks it is necessary or politically opportune to review Macron’s past failed Russia policy or pressure the Élysée over its current Ukraine policy.
First, one of France’s contradictions is that in the country that celebrates debate as a way of life substantive discussion of foreign policy remains limited. There are countless radio shows where politicians and experts discuss broad questions like “What is France’s place in the world?” or “Has Macron rendered France more influential?” Macron’s speeches are also dissected and criticized ad nauseum by journalists and think tankers. But that’s where the buck stops.
Kyiv wants French Leclerc tanks, but neither the opposition, nor the media, nor think tanks are launching a big campaign to put pressure on Macron to lift his veto. Parliamentarians do not pass resolutions constraining Macron or demanding to see the list of French weapons deliveries to Ukraine, which are being kept secret.
That Macron can do as he wants on foreign policy, the president’s so-called domaine réservé, is not confined to his presidency. Whether it was Nicolas Sarkozy deciding to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi in 2011 or François Hollande wanting to bomb Syria for the use of chemical weapons in 2013 or send thousands of troops in the Sahel to fight Islamists, the president’s party, the opposition, and media more or less accept the fait accomplis.
Also, the war in Ukraine remains abstract for many French people. Over one million Ukrainians have come to Germany since February 24, 2022. Friends host refugees. Cars with Ukrainian number plates park in front of the local supermarket. Meanwhile, only 120,000 Ukrainians have opted to go to France. There is also much less identification with Ukraine, a country the French know little. There is no French equivalent of Vitali Klitschko—the former boxing champion and celebrity in Germany, who attracts the nation’s attention when he pleads in German for more arms on TV.
And France’s news cycle is much speedier. Germany’s public space is rhythmed by a series of calm sit-down weekly debate shows on public television. In France 24-hour private news channels with guests on bar stools, who desperately try to land their punchline before the moderator cuts them off set the tone in this hyper nervous democracy.
Une Zeitenwende? Non!
Finally, Russia’s war was less of a shock to France’s political and economic system. France has a nuclear bomb. It mustn’t fear Russia with which it never traded much. The French dependence on China remains manageable compared to Germany’s, and Paris has always been much more wary of Beijing getting hold of key infrastructure such as 5G.
In short, France has fewer wrongs to put right. Sure, France should ask itself whether basing 75 percent of its electricity supply on a single, difficult to master technology is about as risky as drawing 55 percent of your gas imports from an authoritarian country with a criminal leadership. But if Putin dared a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and falsely expected EU sanctions to be limited, then that was not because half of French nuclear reactors are offline or Macron called NATO “braindead,” but because he thought he had Germany in his pocket. After all, Berlin doubled down on Russian energy after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014.
That might also explain why Kyiv isn’t trying to push a Ukraine debate in France. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky invited former Chancellor Angela Merkel, but not former President François Hollande to come visit Bucha. Zelensky’s tweets following calls with Scholz are tight-lipped, but he praises his “friend” Macron for his “unwavering support.” Kyiv’s envoy to Paris acts behind the scenes and doesn’t call out France’s political establishment like Kyiv’s man in Berlin did until the fall, though it has largely the same Russophile streak as Germany’s.
If there was any proof that Ukraine deserves to join the EU, then it lies there. Kyiv knows perfectly well how to play European politics. Public pressure works to some extent in Germany, where foreign policy is negotiated between coalition partners and the debate is public. In proud France where ultimately one person decides, such a strategy would backfire completely. You are thus better of seducing your negotiating partner. Scholz and Macron have some things to learn from Zelensky.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.