For centuries, Germans kept a “watch on the Rhine” toward what they used to call their “hereditary enemy,” France. But in the coming weeks, as France decides in two rounds of voting who its next president will be, the Germans are looking across the Rhine with entirely different emotions. For France is today Germany’s closest partner in Europe and the world. This fact is itself a testament to the success of European integration. And yet this Franco-German “tandem,” as it has been called, is at risk of stalling and falling, perhaps pulling the EU down with it. That is why Germans care almost as intensely about this French election as about their own in September.
When Charlemagne was crowned emperor in the year 800, his empire covered almost the same geographic area as the six founding members of the European Economic Community did when they signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957. But in the Middle Ages, Charlemagne’s western and eastern lands went their separate ways and became rivals. It was Napoleon who overran and abolished the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation in 1806, thus sparking German Nationalism largely as a reaction against French aggression. German unification in 1871 was achieved with a war and victory over France. France then exacted a revenge of sorts by winning World War I, before being humiliated again by Germany in 1940. In 1945 France was officially among the victors, and Germany lay destroyed.
That is why a permanent peace between these two powers lay at the heart of the European idea that evolved into today’s EU. Both countries wanted to build a new relationship based on trust. But from the start this friendship was an unequal one, based on different interests. France, though a permanent member of the UN Security Council, was afraid of losing political clout in a Cold-War world dominated by America and the Soviet Union. It was also afraid of West Germany’s resurging economy. West Germany wanted to be readmitted into the community of Western nations and was prepared to cede political influence for that goal.
These converging interests led to the Élysée treaty, signed in 1963 by Konrad Adenauer, then chancellor, and Charles de Gaulle, the French president. It still symbolizes one of the strongest friendships between nations in history. And yet the implicit terms of the deal were already evident in the iconography of the events. When Adenauer and de Gaulle met in Reims cathedral for a mass of reconciliation, de Gaulle’s chair was slightly taller than Adenauer’s. The Germans thus accepted that the French should lead politically even if the Germans would lead economically. Several later German chancellors would follow Adenauer’s advice to bow three times to the French tricolor before once nodding to Germany’s black, red and gold.
In the following decades, the European project advanced whenever France and Germany could agree on a joint position, thus bringing other member states in line. By working together, for example, Helmut Schmidt und Valéry Giscard d’Estaing launched a European currency regime in the 1970s. And yet the relationship was never easy. France followed one tradition in economics, based on state intervention. West Germany followed another, based on its ideal of a “social market economy.” Another crisis came in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. With reunification looming, France once again worried about German hegemony and “a German Europe.”
To rescue the partnership, Helmut Kohl renewed Germany’s commitment to France and Europe, which culminated in the Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 and a common currency, the euro. But the relationship kept fluctuating. Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac couldn’t stand each other. By contrast, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy at times got along so well that the pair was called “Merkozy.” Under François Hollande, there were tensions again. France wanted to respond to the euro crisis with public investment and some form of debt mutualization (such as “euro bonds”). Germany insisted on fiscal discipline (dubbed “austerity” by others) and structural reforms. But outwardly the two countries still present a common front when it matters. During the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande together went to Minsk to broker an agreement between Russia and Ukraine.
The biggest problem today is that the pretense that France and Germany, as dual leaders of the EU, are roughly balanced in power is no longer tenable. Both German strength and French weakness have become too obvious (see chart above). This causes renewed fear in France of a dominant Germany, which candidates on both the left and the right try to exploit. In Germany the fear is that French weakness could leave Germany alone in shouldering the EU’s problems, and perhaps even isolated among member states.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com