Franco-German Relations

Concerns Over a Lethargic Friend

French President Emmanuel Macron walks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon her arrival to attend a Franco-German joint cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris
This way. No, this way. Source: Reuters

The French public is watching the German parliamentary election as closely as if its own political fate were at stake. The French are familiar with the latest polls, have monitored the rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and know that the real focus of this election is not Angela Merkel’s chancellorship but her future coalition partner.

The French were similarly interested in Germany’s last national election four years ago. But their view of Germany has changed considerably since then. Germany was a role model before the last election. Its economy was competitive, the job market was on the road to full employment, German technology was superior and the transition to green energy known, as the “Energiewende,” was both a risk and a boon in terms of modernizing the economy. Everything culminated in the French public’s admiration for “the car.” The French magazine Le Point titled an article about the German auto industry: “Why Germany Has Become the Ideal Model.”

Four years later, skepticism and disappointment have gained the upper hand. The French public now sees Germany as a country whose economy is experiencing its “golden years,” but lacks the confidence to engage in honest debate over its future and to intervene where change is necessary. Without any malice, but with a keen eye, journalists with the French daily newspaper Le Monde traveled around Germany and concluded: “The German Engine is Stalling.”

Germany’s flagship industry is being used as an indicator once again. However, this time the auto industry is no longer a role model but a trouble spot. This applies to the industry itself, which is perceived as disoriented and obsessed with technologies of the past, as well as to the interplay between the automobile and politics. Many believe the diesel scandal shows that German governance has failed and that lawmakers did not take corrective action early enough. This leads to the concern that perhaps the Germans are blind to the fact that they are resting on the laurels of their past.

The diesel scandal has triggered a more critical view of Germany. There is no moralizing condemnation, but merely the question of whether it was just the auto industry that was functioning on the basis of cheating software, or whether the country as a whole tolerates shoddy work. In fact, French experts have compiled an entire arsenal of Germany’s unsolved problems: the telecommunications network is much too slow for its automation program Industrie 4.0; the current budget surplus does not solve the problems of a shrinking population; insufficient investment in education and infrastructure is not being corrected quickly enough; and, finally, Germany’s domestic security is being jeopardized by turf wars between states.

Emmanuel MACRON and Angela Merke
Thank you, no thank you. Source: Reuters

Not even Germany’s proverbial political stability will be guaranteed anymore if the Alternative for Deutschand (AfD) becomes the third-strongest political power. The French even see weaknesses when it comes to renewable energy. According to a study by government think tank France Stratégie, Germany is about to fall short of its climate protection goals; it is still one of the biggest CO2 polluters on a per-capita basis.

But what irritates the French the most is the political lethargy they perceive in Germany. Germany’s neighbors have always seen them as people who approach problems openly and pragmatically. The French self-deprecatingly see themselves as the people who start revolutions because they are unable to bring about reform. What they love about the Germans is that, in contrast, they doggedly make changes when changes are necessary. For most Frenchmen, “les réformes de Schröder” (the reforms of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder) were proof that the Germans were different from the French.

But now they are witnessing a Germany that is increasingly characterized by inertia rather than tenacity. The election campaign has been criticized in Paris for being complacent. France wants Germany as a calming but not a snoring pole in Europe, partly because it knows that its own transformation will take years. It won’t be a walk in the park, but more like an obstacle course around bubbling geysers. The finance minister is axing the budgets of the country’s inefficient labor administration and residential subsidy system. This could trigger an eruption of the smoldering dissatisfaction that was only concealed by Emmanuel Macron’s election victory. A France undergoing radical change depends on a reliable Germany as a counterbalance.

But are German politicians still capable of reacting creatively to foreign policy as well as technical and European challenges, asks Jean-Dominique Giuliani, head of the Schumann Foundation and an old friend of Germany? Mr. Macron will present his own proposals for a revitalization of Europe immediately after the German election. They will still be general proposals, in deference to the Germans and in anticipation of the broad debate the French hope will emerge, but they will also set the direction for more joint defense and refugee policy, strengthening of responsibility, solidarity and democracy in the euro zone. The French still hope that German policy after the election will be informed by an agility that was absent in the campaign. But they are no longer entirely confident that this will be the case.

Thomas Hanke is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Paris. To reach the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com

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