What Europe Thinks ...

Jun 26, 2024

What the French Think … About the Germans and Vice Versa

A number of recent surveys support the view that the French and the Germans are drifting apart. Strong cross-border initiatives in the fields of education, public media, culture, and tourism remain potent counterweights.

A graph showing the level of interest of the French and German publics in German and French affairs 2018 and 2023
Attribution CC BY

On an institutional level, the enduring Franco-German friendship initiated by the 1963 Élysée Treaty undoubtedly continues to foster cross-border cooperation. With over 120,000 young people participating in school exchanges every year and 6,000 partner cities engaged in town-twinning, France and Germany maintain one of Europe’s closest bilateral relationships. In 2019, the two countries further deepened their institutional ties by signing the Aachen Treaty and establishing a joint Parliamentary Assembly. In doing so, the two governments emphasized the key role of the Franco-German “special relationship” in a broader European context. Since the founding of the European Communities, the so-called “deutsch-französisches Duo” or “couple franco-allemand” has been instrumental to the European integration process, thereby promoting positive mutual perceptions.

Yet, in 2020, the panicky border closures imposed to contain the COVID-19 virus was quickly followed by reports of verbal violence and animosity emerging on both sides of the Franco-German border. Cultural prejudices that had survived “below the surface” despite seven decades of peaceful European integration were suddenly re-emerging, raising concerns about the solidity of cross-border bonds. While pandemic-related tensions in border regions have now been appeased, these concerns have not entirely withered away. In recent years, decreasing numbers of French and German language learners, the closing of cultural institutes, and differences in reported political priorities have fed a narrative of growing Franco-German estrangement.

Asymmetric Perceptions

survey conducted by the Allensbach Institute in 2023 can help form a more objective picture of the current relationship. While overall perceptions of each other are clearly positive, a certain asymmetry emerges. Germans appear to consistently show more interest in their Western neighbors, perceive them more positively, and value bilateral collaboration more than the French.

The survey found than 76 percent of German respondents named close collaboration with France as “important” and that 54 percent showed at least “some interest” in recent French developments, whereas only 63 percent and 36 percent of French respondents held similar opinions vis-à-vis Germany. Part of this contrast may be linked to differences in the nature and frequency of contacts between the French and German populations. This is mainly due to highly asymmetric tourist flows: While more than half of the German population (55 percent) report having traveled to France for vacation in the past, only 18 percent of French respondents have ever spent holidays in Germany.

When analyzing these figures, one crucial fact must always be borne in mind. Despite intense bilateral ties and cross-border integration, most French and German residents have limited knowledge of each other’s language, even in border regions. In practice, direct communication between French and German citizens is frequently difficult, and often simply impossible. In 2023, only 26 percent of German respondents declared having at least some knowledge of French, while 14 percent of French respondents reported knowledge of German. On both sides of the linguistic border, only 1 percent of respondents claimed to have “very good” language skills.

The ongoing diffusion of English proficiency can be expected to ease cross-border communication in the course of the coming decades: Only 5 percent of German and 23 percent of French respondents under 30 years of age reported being unable to speak English, whereas 27 percent and 16 percent, respectively, claimed a “very good” command of the language. But even as English proficiency increases, limited French and German language skills prevent most citizens from directly engaging with the cultural, intellectual, and political productions of their neighbors.

Olaf Who?

With direct interactions being rare, Franco-German perceptions are mainly shaped by a combination of infrequent face-to-face interactions (typically, through tourism), cultural legacies, and political or media narratives. A prominent actor on the European political scene since 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has unsurprisingly enjoyed more visibility and popularity abroad than German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Still, both politicians are much more popular on the international arena than at home, where their approval ratings have reached record lows. As of March 2024, 53 percent of Germans held a positive opinion of Emmanuel Macron. In France, Olaf Scholz was not a sufficiently well-known figure for 55 percent of respondents to express an opinion, while about half of the remaining 45 percent reported a positive opinion of the German chancellor.

Similarly, Germany’s economic slowdown and the more successful turn taken by the French economy since the COVID-19 pandemic have recently given rise to a significant—but possibly temporary—shift in media narratives and perceptions. French newspapers have underlined time and again the limits of the German economic model, commenting on growing political tensions and the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), while some German outlets praised the good health of the French economy and its ability to attract foreign investment. Meanwhile, with record deficits and a very risky snap election ahead, France has entered a period of political and financial turmoil as well—prompting more pessimistic reports on both sides of the border.

Points of Friction

As the political and economic situation deteriorates, the potential for political conflict between the two partners is poised to increase. Not only has the relationship between Chancellor Scholz and President Macron been described as inharmonious. Most European political “families” have experienced frictions between their French and German members in recent times, from the refusal of France’s center-right Les Républicains party to endorse Ursula von der Leyen’s bid for a second mandate as European Commission president to French Commissioner Thierry Breton’s controversial criticism of her leadership and the AfD’s expulsion from the French-dominated Identity & Democracy (ID) group. 

At first sight, these conflicts would seem to be the result of fundamental disagreements in political attitudes, values, and culture. French citizens are more susceptible to euroskepticism than their German neighbors: According to the Spring 2024 Eurobarometer survey, 71 percent of German citizens deemed membership of the European Union “important,” while only 54 percent of French citizens expressed a similar opinion. French citizens also score much higher than Germans on measures of distrust in political institutions. In a four-country survey conducted by the French university Sciences Po in January 2024, 45 percent of German respondents and 30 percent of French respondents declared that they “placed trust in politics.” This 15-point gap increases to over 25 points when asking respondents about their trust in the judiciary, interest in politics, or support for the death penalty.

Despite these differences, however, the distribution of German and French opinions on a series of concrete political issues actually appears to be rather similar. This is especially true when focusing on those issues that are considered drivers of populist support: About two-thirds of respondents in both countries approve of a more restrictive migration policy; four out of 10 desire more “protection;” and between 55 and 60 percent would prioritize purchasing power improvements over a more ambitious climate policy. Rising inflation and anti-migrant sentiments have hit hard on both sides of the border, where the incumbents are experiencing a historic leadership crisis and nationalism is on the rise.

Reinvigorating the Franco-German Relationship

While French and German citizens perceive each other mostly positively, that perception is largely contingent on the mediation of political discourses and media reports. This is especially true among French citizens, who visit Germany less frequently and display lower levels of both English and German proficiency. But it is also a growing trend in Germany, where the interest in French internal affairs and the French language appears to have decreased in recent years. 

In a time of growing global tensions and with war raging on the European continent, the importance of building solid cross-border ties between individuals as well as communities cannot be underestimated. Rather than any negativeperceptions, the main challenge ahead for the Franco-German relationship could lie in a lack of awareness of, interest in, and communication with each other. Strong cross-border initiatives in the fields of education, public media, culture, and tourism are needed more than ever—whether driven by classical bilateral relationships, or, especially in times of political difficulty, by civil society actors.

François Hublet is a political analyst and data scientist with Groupe d’études géopolitiques (GEG), an independent European think tank which inter alia publishes the magazine Le Grand Continent. He is also editor-in-chief of the bilingual Electoral Bulletins of the European Union Bulletins des élections de l’Union Européenne (BLUE).