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The French Disconnection

merkel and hollande looking in different directions_dpa
Talk to the hand, François.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    With two of Europe’s most powerful leaders at loggerheads, opportunities are being lost for joint action on the economic slowdown and Islamist terrorism.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Angela Merkel and François Hollande are currently communicating via intermediaries.
    • France is encouraging German military spending; Germany wants more austerity in France.
    • France is concerned Europe may not be able to defend itself.
  • Audio

    Audio

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It seems that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, François Hollande, are not currently on speaking terms.

Both recently met with the other’s subordinate, but not in person, unless one counts attending a big European Union summit last week.

In September, Ms. Merkel welcomed French premier Manuel Valls to Berlin, and a month later, Mr. Hollande met with the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Paris.

But at a time of multiple international crises, it seems odd that the two most important European heads of state don’t seem to be communicating directly.

At least the two seem to understand the dire circumstances they find themselves in. “I cannot remember any other time during my lifetime that we were facing such a great amount of serious crises,” Mr. Steinmeier said in Paris. Nevertheless, the two countries are not presenting mutual solutions to those problems. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Both governments are involved in “economic trench warfare,” people close to the German government said. If their views and opinions keep diverging, then Europe risks running into another crisis.

Both governments are involved in economic trench warfare.

The reason why Mr. Hollande has no interest in speaking directly with Ms. Merkel is because the latter is consistently lecturing France to stick to the European pact and to cut spending. This is exactly what she told Mr. Valls when he came to visit.

Meanwhile, Ms. Merkel is tired of listening to Mr. Hollande’s repeated attempts to convince Berlin of the International Monetary Fund’s latest theories regarding the necessary stimulation of the euro zone, which includes increased investments by Germany in infrastructure projects and fewer budgetary restrictions for France.

The German-French divisions on reforms are causing a crises of confidence and lack of action, according to the German government sources – something both countries cannot afford at such a time.

On top of all that, the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, threatens to reject the latest French budget plan. According to news reports, the commission wants France to cut another €8 billion worth of costs and is even threatening to impose sanctions.

But France’s budget plan already includes €21 billion worth of spending cuts – a record by French standards. There is no way the French government is going to consider even more concessions.

French and German staff are on high alert and are trying to find ways to appease the commission. They want to highlight France’s high military spending and convince Brussels to ignore these costs when discussing its deficits.

There is no way the French government is going to consider even more concessions.

Paris has spent a total of €2 billion on military campaigns this year in countries such as Iraq, Mali and the Central African Republic. At the same time, its overall deficit will once again surpass the 3 percent mark in 2015 – the upper limit set by the commission.

A few politicians in Berlin are shaking their heads, arguing that there is little to be gained from bleeding the economics ministry to pay the defense ministry. At the same time, Ms. Merkel, who has been known as Madame Non in France since the beginning of the euro crisis, is not commenting on the latest news.

In fact, people close to her think she prefers to keep silent when it comes to France, because each time she says something, whether positive or negative, she risks sounding patronizing to France and is accused of playing tactical political games.

France is beginning to feel nervous about that. It fears that the special relationship with Berlin will soon fade. “We have managed to reduce mutual prejudice during the last 60 years, but they have not disappeared yet,” said Gérard Courtois, columnist at the daily newspaper Le Monde. “The old talk of a strong Germany compared to a reckless France is returning.”

But the latest crisis is also highlighting the fact that Germany is lagging behind France when it comes to military spending, just as France is lagging behind Germany economically.

“The old talk of a strong Germany compared to a reckless France is returning.”

Gérard Courtois, Columnist, Le Monde

French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, for example, suggested to Mr. Steinmeier that the two should travel to visit the Kurdish troops in Northern Iraq, where France has been helping to fight Islamic State. But Mr. Steinmeier had to cancel because Germany was still debating whether to support Kurdish troops or not.

On another occasion, the French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called for a European military response to Al-Qaida in Southern Libya. But German authorities were not ready for such a request.

Mr. Valls has signaled his unease with the current situation. “Europe is not in a position to defend itself,” he said. “We do take our responsibility in that regard seriously, but not everybody does,” he said, hinting at Germany’s reluctance to get involved militarily.

Such is the way the Franco-German relationship is deteriorating. There is no common action that would show strong leadership by the two countries when it comes to budget plans or military action against Islamic terror. It is time that the German-French relationship became a top-level priority again.

 

This article first appeared in the newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: georg.blume@zeit.de

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