European alliance

France won't take advantage of Germany's lack of government

Antrittsbesuch des französischen Präsidenten Macron
"And then Christian said: It's not you, it's me. And he walked out." Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron in Berlin in May this year. Source: DPA

The political impasse in Berlin is causing collateral damage in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron had big plans for the first half of 2018, but must now put at least some of them on ice. The French president had planned, early in 2018, to join with the new German government in presenting a revised Élysée Treaty, putting Franco-German cooperation on a new, expanded and modernized basis.

Most of all though, Mr. Macron wanted to fashion a new agreement with Germany on enhanced European and euro zone integration, with a view to agreeing the necessary resolutions before the European parliamentary elections in 2019.

At things now stand, that plan will be delayed at the very least, as no one knows if a new German government will be in place by Easter. So is Paris now suffering from a hangover – a gueule de bois? Or is it trying to outsmart its German partners? In fact, it’s doing neither. Mr. Macron is still hoping to push through big change in Europe, so the continent can better assert its sovereignty in defense, foreign policy and migration policy, as well as in currency and economic affairs.

Germany plus France is not a zero-sum game.

The French president has not given up on his long-term plan for European integration. But he doesn’t want to wait around for a new German government to be established. Instead of spreading panic, or fretting about what the German parties are up to, Mr. Macron is concentrating on what is possible now. In his view, this includes smaller steps, like more European investment in digitalization and the first steps toward common European universities.

A second line of approach is to seize the opportunity of France’s new, unintended role. If the president was some kind of mini-Machiavelli, he would see Berlin’s weakness as a chance to strengthen France. But he doesn’t think like that. Mr. Macron is well aware of his country’s abilities, but also its limitations. Germany plus France is not a zero-sum game: The view in Paris is that without German partnership, France lacks the strength to push through European integration. French leaders also believe a synchronized approach is needed, after 20 years where France has often been conspicuous by its absence in responding to German suggestions.

In this context, the French government has no illusions as to the meaning of September’s elections and the failed attempt to form a government in Berlin. Paris expects a long phase of political transition on the other side of the Rhine. Seven parties including right-wing extremists in parliament and a chancellor whose power is not what it was: French politicians see all this as more than just a random stumble on the part of a partner whose stability has been its defining factor for decades.

Classic French parties have recently been divided by the new social, economic and political challenges which have come with digitalization, globalization and shifts in geopolitical relations. French observers don’t think Germany is that far gone but they do think things are heading in the same direction. The French president, who is energetically shaking things up in his country, sees Europe as the fundamental problem-solving instrument. However – and here there is an implicit criticism of Germany – political leaders must come out and support Europe in public, rather than surreptitiously seeking European solutions behind closed doors.

France has become more important. With his September speech at the Sorbonne, Mr. Macron took on the role of the ideas guy, the one that other European countries look to. But the president should know just how much catching up France still has to do, for example, in its relationships with smaller EU member states and Eastern European partners. Mr. Macron’s goal is to make France, alongside Germany, an honest broker in Europe. He rehearsed this in detail in his reform of the EU’s Posted Worker Directive and his bid to strengthen oversight of Chinese investment. This can continue, step by step, until the big projects can be addressed together with Paris’s German partner. The French leadership has no doubts about the fundamentally pro-European attitude of the majority of Germans.

For Germany, it is a stroke of luck that France is governed by an administration which will not seek to take short-term advantage of the complex political situation in Germany. So far, Mr. Macron has shown clear principles, a realistic view of Germany’s and France’s own capabilities and a sense of responsibility.

These days, rather than making the situation worse, France is truly stepping into the breach.

 

To contact the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com

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