The French-German Divide Is Back

Macron’s victory and Scholz’s wavering over Russia could shatter the momentary unity between Paris and Berlin.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Scholz and Putin stand at podiums next to one another.
Scholz and Putin stand at podiums next to one another.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) listens to French President Emmanuel Macron during a joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Berlin on Feb. 8. THIBAULT CAMUS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For a brief historic moment, just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world witnessed what appeared to be a new spirit of unity between France and Germany. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Feb. 27 declaration of Zeitenwende, or “the turning of an era”—meaning a dramatically stepped-up defense and independent energy policy—seemed to reinvigorate the fading idea of the West and imbue the European Union with a new sense of higher purpose. It was just the sort of reinvention that French President Emmanuel Macron has been demanding for years.

But the events of the last several days could shatter such hopes. On Sunday, Macron won a smashing victory over right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, making him the first president of France’s Fifth Republic (under the new constitution adopted in 1958) to be reelected without having to share power. It’s all but certain that Macron will use his second term—his party faces parliamentary elections in June—to further pursue his dream of a truly united “sovereign Europe” that speaks with one voice, especially in confronting Russia.

Yet Scholz and his ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) may be going in a different direction. Despite urgent calls for Germany to reduce or eliminate its energy dependence on Russia in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Scholz in recent days has stated clearly this is not going to happen anytime soon. He told Der Spiegel in an interview published on April 22 that an embargo on Russian gas wouldn’t affect Putin’s plans and only cause a “dramatic economic crisis” in Germany. Scholz also ruled out sending tanks or other heavy weaponry to Ukraine “to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war.”

For a brief historic moment, just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world witnessed what appeared to be a new spirit of unity between France and Germany. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Feb. 27 declaration of Zeitenwende, or “the turning of an era”—meaning a dramatically stepped-up defense and independent energy policy—seemed to reinvigorate the fading idea of the West and imbue the European Union with a new sense of higher purpose. It was just the sort of reinvention that French President Emmanuel Macron has been demanding for years.

But the events of the last several days could shatter such hopes. On Sunday, Macron won a smashing victory over right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, making him the first president of France’s Fifth Republic (under the new constitution adopted in 1958) to be reelected without having to share power. It’s all but certain that Macron will use his second term—his party faces parliamentary elections in June—to further pursue his dream of a truly united “sovereign Europe” that speaks with one voice, especially in confronting Russia.

Yet Scholz and his ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD) may be going in a different direction. Despite urgent calls for Germany to reduce or eliminate its energy dependence on Russia in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Scholz in recent days has stated clearly this is not going to happen anytime soon. He told Der Spiegel in an interview published on April 22 that an embargo on Russian gas wouldn’t affect Putin’s plans and only cause a “dramatic economic crisis” in Germany. Scholz also ruled out sending tanks or other heavy weaponry to Ukraine “to prevent an escalation that would lead to a third world war.”

It is in many ways a return to form for both countries. For five years as France’s president, Macron has sought to enlist a reluctant Germany, under former Chancellor Angela Merkel, in his ambitious campaign to turn the EU into something more than a weak confederation. As he declared in his first major speech on Europe as president in 2017, “France and Germany can inject decisive, practical momentum.” While Scholz’s office boasted that the chancellor was the first foreign leader to congratulate Macron on his reelection and that the two “confirmed their intention to continue the close and trusting relationship between Germany and France,” that prospect is looking less and less likely by the day.

Macron, aspiring to his ambitious role as the self-anointed leader of Europe, sought in the early weeks of the Russian invasion to reach out to Putin and find accommodation. But more recently he has shifted his stance, joining U.S. President Joe Biden to dramatically step up military aid to Ukraine by sending heavy artillery including the French-built Caesar howitzer.

Meanwhile, on Monday, 50 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to Scholz urging him to “take a stand on the right side of history.” The MEPs, hailing from 13 member states, chided Germany for blocking the European Parliament’s April 7 resolution, which passed with a large majority, calling for “an immediate full embargo on Russian imports of oil, coal, nuclear fuel, and gas.” They said that even after the atrocities discovered in the town of Bucha and elsewhere, “the EU continues financing Putin’s war machine. We find it hard to believe that the proud German nation is satisfied with such [a] policy line of the German Government.”

Scholz is also catching flak for wavering from inside Germany—as well as from Ukraine. Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany—who has since Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea chastised the German government for inaction—suggested in an interview this month that the resistance of Scholz’s SPD to sending heavy weapons or imposing an energy embargo could be attributed to the history of leading SPD politicians having a “highly questionable closeness to Russia.” These include German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whom Melnyk accused of a “web of contacts” with Moscow, and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who after his retirement from politics went to work for Russian corporations including Nord Stream, which owns and operates the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia to Germany that he authorized as chancellor. (Steinmeier has admitted he erred in pushing for the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying, “We were holding on to bridges that Russia no longer believed in.”)

“It’s exactly the wrong moment to waver on Ukraine,” said Harold James, a historian of Europe at Princeton University. “Exactly in this period is when you need to be the toughest. If Ukraine is taken apart, that’s really the end of the European dream, and Macron sees that clearly.”

Macron and Scholz agree that the European NATO countries should not directly participate in the war—the French president has called it a “red line”—and that Putin’s aggression must be stopped. France and Germany have also aligned on other Russia-related issues in the past: In 2008, they joined to block a NATO membership plan for Ukraine and Georgia, saying Russia would see that as an existential threat. Then-U.S. President George W. Bush overrode their objections and insisted on a declaration that both countries would one day join NATO—a move many critics say only fed Putin’s anger and helped set the stage for his invasion.

But the recent moves by Scholz’s government suggest that Berlin is groping for a new brand of Ostpolitik, the policy of detente toward Moscow begun by then-Chancellor Willy Brandt, also an SPD member, at the height of the Cold War in the late 1960s. Before he became chancellor in early December, Scholz frankly said that was what he was seeking to do and also that Berlin should always keep discussions with Moscow open. “There is a good tradition established by Willy Brandt and [former Chancellor] Helmut Schmidt in Germany about common security in Europe,” he said in an interview last fall. Scholz also strongly supported ​​Nord Stream 2, a project he has now halted.

Scholz, asked to respond to Putin’s annexation and moves into eastern Ukraine in that interview, also said he was “committed to the fact that borders in Europe should no longer be moved by force.” Yet, some critics say, he appears to be heading back to the geopolitical fence that Merkel occupied for much of her 16 years in power: alternately seeking to appease Putin and to confront him diplomatically. Merkel strongly opposed arming Ukraine after Putin’s 2014 aggression and pressed then-U.S. President Barack Obama to adopt the same policy, which he mostly did—in opposition to then-Vice President Joe Biden and many other members of Obama’s administration.

If it turns out to be true that Scholz is reembracing Merkel’s ultra-cautious brand of foreign policy, it may be bad news for Macron, too. The French president has long envisioned a vastly strengthened EU with a truly integrated defense, economic, and energy policy. In his 2017 speech, he called for a joint intervention force and defense budget and for bringing “our social [and fiscal] models closer together.”

True, the Germans, if anything, embrace the EU even more than the French do; Euroskepticism continues to be a factor in French politics, while it is virtually nonexistent in Germany. But for the most part, mainstream politicians in Germany, including Scholz, are fairly happy with the status quo of a loose federation in which EU nations are allowed to pursue their own security and economic policy. The Germans keenly want to be part of the EU without allowing it to change their culture—or compromise their powerful economy. Much of this outlook can be traced to the legacy of World War II and the leeriness of militarization that is a hallowed tenet of postwar Germany, just as Germany’s strict fiscal austerity can trace its lineage to the ruinous post-World War I hyperinflation that facilitated the rise of the Nazis.

The problem Scholz faces going forward is that the status quo is probably not possible any longer. It is probably no longer politically tenable for German politicians to find ways of accommodating Putin, and Germany must at long last wrestle with a reality it has long avoided: Building nuclear power plants is perhaps the only viable path to something close to energy independence.

Macron may realize he has other problems as well; although he outpolled the insurgent Le Pen by 17 percentage points, his right-wing opponent delivered her best showing ever by playing on the fears of rising energy prices stemming partly from Western boycotts, among other issues. At a victory rally, Macron declared that “an answer must be found to the anger and disagreements that led many of our compatriots to vote for the extreme right.” That includes developing a new policy toward a hostile Russia.

“France needs a better Ostpolitik, and Scholz’s Germany doesn’t seem to have a Europe policy,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution. “Neither of them has really come to grips with what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the European security order.”

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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