Berlin Cable

Mar 18, 2024

Trouble at the Top

It’s not much of a secret that Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are very different characters. Their deepening rift is damaging the Franco-German relationship—and Europe.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron before their trilateral meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk for the consultation forum 'Weimar Triangle', at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany March 15, 2024.
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When French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Berlin on March 15 for something that felt like an emergency meeting, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz knew better than to serve a “fish roll” again. 

The Fischbrötchen, to which Scholz treated Macron and his wife Brigitte when they visited Hamburg, Scholz’ hometown, in October 2023 and the pained expression with which the French couple consumed the questionable delicacy from northern Germany while Scholz was happily munching away was the perfect symbol of a relationship going awry.

Half a year on, it seems on the verge of breaking down completely.

The meeting arranged at short notice—which, after two hours alone, was extended to new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to form a “Weimar Triangle” summit—offered a chance for the two men to make up, with Tusk almost in the role of marriage counselor. Despite much bonhomie and an effort not to step on each others’ toes in public, the short press conference (with no questions allowed) did little to clear the air or signal a step-change in the support for Ukraine. Tusk felt duty-bound to laud the “atmosphere” which showed “that all these nasty rumors of bickering and disagreement between European capitals are just plain wrong.” 

Opposing Ends

It’s clear, however, that two years into Russian President Vladimir Putin full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Macron and Scholz are divided on their basic reading of what Putin’s war means for Europe and their respective countries. 

Macron, as he confirmed on the eve of the summit on French television, now sees Putin’s neo-imperialism and his wish to wipe Ukraine off the map as an existential threat to Europe—much like Russia’s western neighbors from Lithuania to Romania. “If Russia were to win, the lives of French people would change,” Macron said in a primetime interview, doubling down on remarks he had already made on February 26 after a high-level meeting in Paris in support of Ukraine. “We would no longer have security in Europe.”

To Macron this means it is important not to rule out anything, including deploying troops, when it comes to responding to Putin’s aggression; setting any limits means “opting for defeat,” the French president said.

Scholz’ position is diametrically opposite. While having described the outcome of the war as “fundamental” for Europe and Germany as recently as December, he has always been eager to rule things out, at least at first (the German government has revised various decisions, including on sending Leopard battle tanks). The latest German “neins” refer to the Taurus cruise missile, which Scholz ruled out supplying to Ukraine for the first time publicly on the morning of February 26, and to any troops, which Scholz stressed that evening. Deepening the rift with Macron, his team published a Scholz video on social media in which the chancellor promised that Germany would not become “a party to the war.”

Domestic Pressures

Keeping such a promise, however, is not really in Scholz’ hands, but Putin’s. And intellectual consistency is certainly on the French side. But the German chancellor seems trapped in his own logic—i.e., that “non-escalation” will keep Russia at bay—while his Social Democratic Party (SPD) hopes that being able to advertise Scholz as a “chancellor for peace” (“Friedenskanzler”) who kept Germany out of the war will be an electoral seller come the European elections in June and beyond.

The SPD is currently polling at around 15 percent—an embarrassing low number for a party that fields Germany’s chancellor. The SPD’s left-wing in particular seem to be increasingly pushing Scholz to adopt cautious, defensive positions. Their most powerful figure, parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich, recently advocated for “freezing” the war (a day after Putin had made clear on Russian state TV for the umpteenth time that he’s not interested in any negotiation and wants the whole of Ukraine), to much consternation also on the government benches.

In France, the political dynamic is the other way round: With Macron’s party, Renaissance, in current polling far behind the far right Rassemblement National (RN), a more aggressive line on Russia may help to close the gap, attacking RN on its traditional closeness with Putin (while reminding the French public of RN’s ideological roots in that part of France that collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II). In a sign that this is effective, RN leader Marine Le Pen, one day before Macron’s Berlin visit, denounced Putin’s attack on Ukraine in much harsher terms than previously.

“Openly and Honestly”

While these dynamics are pushing Macron and Scholz in different directions, some in Berlin warn against making too much of this split at the top. “The fact that, from time to time, Franco-German differences are aired so publicly is precisely because our relationship is so close; no other two states are in such permanent contact with each other,” Anna Lührmann, Minister of State for Europe, the Franco-German relationship, and climate policy at the German Foreign Office, told me. 

“The Franco-German relationship is of fundamental importance to Europe; it has strong foundations, and there are large areas of agreement. This means that we can talk very openly and honestly with each other,” Lührmann added, somewhat echoing remarks by French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné, who after a damage-limitation meeting with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, told reporters on March 2 that the two countries agreed “on 80 percent” (which some observers found a worryingly low number, given the circumstances). 

For Lührmann, “Ukraine policy is a perfect example: On almost all questions, France and Germany are on the same page, our priorities and policies are identical. The disagreement at the end of February was about the question of strategic ambiguity—France, with its particular military strategic culture and experience and a president who is also the commander-in-chief, has a different approach to Germany, which inter alia has a ‘parliamentary army,’ which means that all deployments require parliamentary approval.”

The chair of the Franco-German parliamentary group, Nicole Westig of the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), agrees that, overall, relations are solid. “We may occasionally strongly disagree with our French colleagues, for instance on the EU-Mercosur trade agreement [which, put simply, France opposes and Germany is in favor of], but the relationship is really close also on the parliamentary level. And the geopolitical situation should make us all concentrate on what unites us.” 

Under Strain

It is clear, however, that Russia’s war has made things harder for the EU’s two biggest nations to get along and move things forward. “The war has not only made the ‘small differences’ between France and Germany more visible, it has made them larger,” Claire Demesmay, a leading expert on the Franco-German relationship, professor at Saarbrücken University, and a former German Council on Foreign Relations colleague told me. “It also seemed to have strengthened the will both in Paris and Berlin to keep a firm eye on national interests.”

What’s more, Macron and his circle—which first had to deal with a largely unresponsive Chancellor Angela Merkel when it came to advancing the EU and then a Chancellor Scholz who’s also taking his time—have become convinced that only public snubs work to get the German side’s attention and to make it move positions. “Brusquerie” was at play when Macron called off the annual Franco-German ministerial meeting ahead of the anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between the two countries in late 2022, it is apparently also at play now, to shock the Germans in particular out of sleepwalking into a disaster in Ukraine. “This is counterproductive,” warns Demesmay, “the Franco-German split only helps Putin.”

While the president and the chancellor may still be able to patch things up, for the greater good of saving Ukraine and European security, one thing seems also clear: The question of who leads Europe will need a constructive answer. For now, it looks like Macron can’t and Scholz doesn’t want to. And Berlin’s unwillingness is increasingly looking like a national trademark—telling not only the war criminals in Russia, but also allies and friends in Europe all the things that Germany won’t do. This includes the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), especially when it comes to putting forward ideas for the EU’s future.

This is perhaps the biggest weight around the relationship’s neck. Even seven years after Macron’s Sorbonne speech, Germany—grandiose language in coalition agreements aside—is lacking constructive, trailblazing proposals to put forward. It is only when Germany’s politicians and public finally come back with an idea for Europe and the EU that suits the challenging times, that the widening Franco-German gap might begin to narrow once again.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

This article is a preview from the IPQ Spring 2024 issue, out on March 25.

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