Franco-German Relations: The Prospects For A European Leap Forward
Turbulence in Franco-German relations has often ensued from the occupant of the Élysée or the Chancellery being replaced. Dealing with a new partner from another party, with a different temperament or from another generation has sometimes required time to create good chemistry or, failing that, a modus vivendi between the two leaders. A period of adaptation was needed to make the relationship between Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder or, more recently, the one between Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and subsequently François Hollande, work effectively.
Angela Merkel’s replacement in 2021 promises to be much smoother. Her successor, Olaf Scholz, has been Vice Chancellor since 2018 and has the advantage of being the outgoing finance minister. Consequently, he has been involved in Franco-German relations daily for almost four years, during which he established close ties with his counterpart, Bruno Le Maire. The German Social Democrat played a decisive role in convincing Angela Merkel to give up several principles dear to the Germans (budgetary rigour, rejection of a common European debt) and give way to a major Franco-German initiative to respond to the health crisis. After a chaotic start, with the closure of borders, the coronavirus pandemic allowed links between the two main countries of the European Union to be strengthened, reaffirmed by the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 2019. Paris got over its disappointment at the lack of response from Angela Merkel to Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech.
There will also be continuity for the parliamentary players. Almost all German members of the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly were re-elected to the Bundestag on 26th September 2021. Established by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, this organisation is now tried and tested and ready to make its contribution.
This climate of confidence creates the ideal conditions for the new German coalition to launch big European projects. The Federal Republic's last major initiatives for the construction of Europe - rather than simply as a reaction to crises - date back to the 1990s with the single currency and the EU’s expansion to the east. Berlin’s role as a leader will depend on the ability of the “traffic light” coalition to innovate, and perhaps to move out of its comfort zone. It is expected in Paris to deal with financial issues, a delicate matter for the Liberals, unlike its two other partners. Recent statements made by Christian Lindner, the future finance minister, on the proposals made by European Stability Mechanism economists for a reform of the Maastricht criteria open the way to a discussion. The coalition agreement sends out a signal regarding the EU bank deposit guarantee. However, the challenge remains considerable, given FDP’s recent doctrine and a strengthening belief among the population that a common debt is a way of making Germany pay “for others”. Nevertheless, there are other issues, such as defence or the common foreign policy, where the new majority’s track record shows convergence with France. The idea of an actual European army, promoted by the FDP, is in tune with the relative disengagement of America. France, which has promised more military integration in the EU, will need to show whether it is ready to end the period of reflection, even if it means giving up part of its sovereignty. This would erase the failure of the European Defence Community, torpedoed by the French parliament in 1954. Winning Paris over to the idea of creating a federal European state with an actual constitution seems even more ambitious given the objection to the idea expressed by French voters in 2005.
Having just taken over, the new German government will be thrown in at the deep end with a French presidency concentrated in the first quarter of 2022 because of the presidential elections. Due to the length of coalition negotiations, the majority, particularly the Greens and the FDP who have been in opposition until now, will have had only five weeks to prepare for this event with French officials.
However, in the medium term, the added value of this smooth transition for Franco-German relations depends largely on Emmanuel Macron being re-elected president in April 2022. A victory for any other candidate would reshuffle the cards. The profile of the centre-left candidates: the environmentalist Yannick Jadot and the socialist Anne Hidalgo, shows convergence with the “traffic light” coalition. They would probably need a run-in period before being able to take full advantage of the Franco-German alliance. For the moment, neither Mr Jadot nor Ms Hidalgo are backed by the polls. Accession of the LR candidate to the Élysée would complicate matters given Valérie Pécresse's firm stand on national sovereignty. She defends the primacy of the 1958 constitution over European law, a true negation of the European project and a revival of extreme right discourse. The humiliation would undoubtedly be too great to endure for a German government after the sparring matches with Poland and Hungary on respecting European law. Unless this stance is rectified during the campaign, the Franco-German engine will suffer from a future head of state drawn from the Republican right.
The consequences of a victory by the extreme right, backed by flattering polls, reflecting the disenchantment of a substantial section of the French population, are unimaginable. With Marine Le Pen appearing under the more subdued and less abrasive guise of Éric Zemmour, there would be a decisive end to cooperation between the two main countries of the EU, presenting a very bad omen for the other 25 member states of the EU.
Luc ANDRE, German correspondent of the newspaper l’Opinion