Why It Matters to Celebrate an Empty Shell
This weekend France and Germany celebrate a treaty that was born in discord and remains the manifestation of their continued disagreements. Yet celebrating the Franco-German myth remains an imperative of realpolitik.
It’s going to be an awkward party. Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Franco-German friendship treaty this Sunday.
Awkward, because relations between Paris and Berlin are not exactly au top today. But also, because the Élysée Treaty signed in 1963 encapsulates all the structural problems that still plague the Franco-German relationship today.
Let’s rewind. After World War II, French President Charles de Gaulle understood France would have to build its future with, rather than against, Germany. Having returned to power in 1958, the general saw that it offered a chance for peace. He also wanted a close Franco-German relationship because deterring the Soviet Union was the new geostrategic imperative. And because, together, the two countries would have the critical mass to stand on an equal footing with Washington and Moscow.
De Gaulle thus firmly backed Bonn in successive Cold War crises and relentlessly charmed German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. For Paris, the Élysée Treaty was supposed to be the crowning of this endeavor. By pledging to coordinate security and foreign affairs, the two heavyweights of the newly formed European Community would embark on their own course in a Cold War world.
That raised alarm bells in Washington, but also in Bonn. Upon ratification, Adenauer’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) in the Bundestag insisted on adding a preamble to the treaty stating that Europe’s defense lies in NATO, that the United Kingdom should be allowed to join the European Community, and that Europeans should pursue tariff-free trade with the United States and Great Britain.
Upon hearing of this maneuver, de Gaulle exploded. The preamble was turning the treaty into an “empty shell,” the Frenchman complained. The general accused the Germans of behaving like the animal that provided the meat for the ham and cheese sandwiches that the not-so-gourmet de Gaulle liked to eat in the Élysée palace.
Berlin Still Hedging
60 years later, Paris and Berlin are still fighting about the same thing.
France still hopes that the two countries form the nucleus of a European force that can stand on an equal footing with the world’s big powers. Yet, Berlin is still hedging and doesn’t want to go all-in on the France card.
True, Germany is certainly much more closely aligned with France on the economic front. The €750 billion European Recovery Fund is the obvious example. Ukraine, climate change, and the return of industrial policy: Germany has become markedly more French in its geoeconomics thinking. Economic policy, from loosening EU state aid rules to revising the Stability and Growth Pact, is also where the Franco-German roadmap to be presented on Sunday is likely to point to.
But in the context of Germany’s geopolitical and defense Zeitenwende for which Paris had great hopes, cooperation with France plays next to no role.
Scholz emphasizes the fact that any decision on tank deliveries to Ukraine is one he takes with allies “and especially our transatlantic partner.” Much of the new defense money is spent on US arms. Many Franco-German arm projects from tanks to helicopters are on hold. In order not to completely poleaxe the French, Berlin is keeping FCAS, the common fighter jet program, alive.
What surprises Paris even more is that Berlin is also making its own moves. Scholz wants to appear close to the US on Ukraine, but doesn’t follow up when Washington signals it would be fine with Germany sending Leopard tanks. Scholz warns the US against entering a new Cold War logic, but humiliates Macron when he publicly rejects his proposal to go to Beijing together.
The German chancellor is even spearheading the establishment of a new rocket-based air defense system covering 15 European allies, making a pitch for Germany to become itself a protector of European security. Berlin leading a continent-wide defense project that is neither led by the US nor embedded in a Franco-German context has come as a slight shock to Paris.
60 years after the signing of the Élysée Treaty, French disappointment is thus back again. The Germans won’t let themselves be taken in. That is also, however, because like 60 years ago, Paris still lacks a real offer that could sway Berlin.
The Élysée Treaty lays bare the fundamental contradiction of the Franco-German axis idea as seen by Paris. The treaty did not foresee any far-reaching institutional arrangements that would allow the two countries to achieve the goal of a closely coordinated foreign and defense policy.
There is no mention of a common army or command structure. There is no commitment to merging the foreign services. The treaty’s major innovation was the introduction of twice-a-year meetings between the president and the chancellor, quarterly meetings between foreign ministers, and more frequent rendezvous between civil service staff.
Typically for de Gaulle—the man who fought all his life to reinstall French sovereignty—the treaty only foresees intergovernmental modes of cooperation.
If France is really serious about building that “puissance Europe” around the Franco-German axis, it will have to be ready to go much further institutionally. And this is where the buck really stops. In the 2022 presidential election, the mere rumor that Macron was considering sharing France’s seat on the UN Security Council nearly led to a media meltdown.
In Dubio Pro Party?
So, on Sunday France and Germany celebrate a treaty that was born in discord and remains the manifestation of their continued disagreements—France dreaming big, but not willing to do what it takes to follow up; Germany hedging and not always being upfront about its choices.
If the treaty is an empty shell, would it then be better to just ditch the celebrations? As many pundits in France like to say in bold statements: “The Franco-German relationship doesn’t exist.”
Quite right. But the Franco-German myth does exist. And it yields results, to this day.
When Germany’s leading ministers immediately hopped on the plane to Paris to go see Macron after he canceled the ministerial meeting in October last year, this was the power of this myth at work. A total of 84 percent of Germans think Berlin can trust Paris, 55 percent have faith in Washington, 9 percent in Beijing, a recent poll showed. German politicians don’t want to bear responsibility for ditching Adenauer’s legacy. The provisions on Franco-German student exchanges and commitments to teach each other’s languages in the Élysée Treaty seem to have had some effects.
Any form of political cooperation that is to last needs myths, ideals, and emotions that paper over divisions and allow you to keep cooperating. And at a minimum, conjuring up positive emotions helps to keep negative emotions in check. One does not have to look far—in France or in Germany—to find that both resentment of and prejudice against one’s neighbors are still alive.
The treaty remains half-baked, the Franco-German relationship a half-truth. But celebrating it and leveraging the fake-it-till-you-make-it power of myths remains an imperative.
No one knew this better than Charles de Gaulle, the master of the art of government by myth-making. Only months after the controversial ratification of the Élysée Treaty, Adenauer’s transatlanticist successor Ludwig Erhard (one of the driving forces behind the preamble) came to Paris in December 1963. De Gaulle swallowed his frustrations and instead praised the treaty and celebrated the bright Franco-German future. Let’s party as de Gaulle did.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.