Germany’s Awakening Piques France’s Amour-Propre

The special relationship between Berlin and Paris that underpins the European Union is under growing strain.

By , an Italian journalist based in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron hosts German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron hosts German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron hosts German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Oct. 26. Ronny Hartmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images

In any couple, there are few sights sadder than one partner caring much less than the other about the relationship. As diplomatic tensions between Paris and Berlin were laid bare over the past few weeks, French media immediately filled with alarmed commentaries often veering toward hysteria, with one paper headlining that “War between France and Germany becomes possible again.” 

Across the Rhine, the German press yawned, giving relatively little coverage to the cancellation of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting and a rocky working lunch at the Élysée Palace between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the end of which the two leaders didn’t even appear in front of the cameras for statements. 

France and Germany currently find themselves at loggerheads on an unusually wide range of crucial issues, from energy to defense to international trade. But on a deeper level, what is really causing a rift is that France rightly fears it’s being left behind by a more powerful partner that’s appearing less and less willing to confine itself within the boundaries of European policymaking.“The more worrying aspect of the current crisis is not the number of sources of tension but the asymmetry that we are seeing emerge” between the two countries, said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, a German politics expert at the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne.

In any couple, there are few sights sadder than one partner caring much less than the other about the relationship. As diplomatic tensions between Paris and Berlin were laid bare over the past few weeks, French media immediately filled with alarmed commentaries often veering toward hysteria, with one paper headlining that “War between France and Germany becomes possible again.” 

Across the Rhine, the German press yawned, giving relatively little coverage to the cancellation of a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting and a rocky working lunch at the Élysée Palace between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the end of which the two leaders didn’t even appear in front of the cameras for statements. 

France and Germany currently find themselves at loggerheads on an unusually wide range of crucial issues, from energy to defense to international trade. But on a deeper level, what is really causing a rift is that France rightly fears it’s being left behind by a more powerful partner that’s appearing less and less willing to confine itself within the boundaries of European policymaking.“The more worrying aspect of the current crisis is not the number of sources of tension but the asymmetry that we are seeing emerge” between the two countries, said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, a German politics expert at the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne.

In recent years, the alliance between Germany and France—both co-founders of the European Union and the bloc’s largest and second-largest economies, respectively—has been an unshakeable pillar of EU politics. Despite their differences on issues like public spending and budget rules, French and German governments have constituted a united, pro-European front against the challenges posed by Brexit, the rise of far-right populism, and democratic backsliding in countries like Hungary and Poland. 

“The Franco-German duo must be the motor of the European family. It would be dramatic if it broke up,” said Patrick Vignal, a French member of Parliament who sits in the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Yet, the idea of a special alliance between two equal powers is “an illusion that over the last 10 years has been artificially kept alive,” Robinet-Borgomano said, with France using it to remain relevant on the international stage and Germany using it to make its “leadership from behind” seem more concerted than it actually was. 

In recent months, with the war in Ukraine upending its economic model based on cheap Russian gas and low military spending, Germany has become more assertive, showing little patience for concerted action. Its unilateral decision to spend up to 200 billion euros (or $195 billion) to subsidize skyrocketing gas prices, paired with its opposition to an EU-wide energy cap and more joint EU borrowing to blunt the pain of rising energy prices, has ruffled feathers in Paris and other European capitals that worry about the impact of the war on their own energy costs.

Scholz also raised eyebrows and ire among European partners after he greenlighted the sale of a stake in the port of Hamburg to a Chinese company—over the objections of nearly the entire German government. He then went to China this week with a group of CEOs of German blue chip companies, reportedly rejecting an offer by Macron to come along to send a signal of EU unity. China is Germany’s top trading partner, with the two countries exchanging goods worth 246.1 billion euros (or $244 billion) last year, and Scholz is the first Western leader to be received in Beijing since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Clearly, its special relationship with France is not paramount in Berlin’s mind.

Seen from Paris, these moves appear shortsighted at best. France’s strategy revolves around “Europe becoming an important geopolitical center, and this can only happen if France and Germany work together to build a counterweight to the U.S. on one side and China on the other,” said Cornelia Woll, president of the Hertie School in Berlin. Instead, Germany’s choices are guided more by the pursuit of economic interest than by any grand strategic design, she added.

To the extent to which Germany does think strategically, it hardly finds itself on the same page as France. On the old question of Europe’s geopolitical independence, Paris and Berlin have regularly taunted each other in recent years. Macron called NATO “brain-dead,” and a German defense minister branded France’s quest for European strategic autonomy from the United States as “illusions.”

For a brief moment, it seemed that things were going to be different under Scholz. The idea of European sovereignty—essentially wriggling away from economic and military reliance on powers outside the bloc—features heavily in the German government’s coalition program and was reaffirmed by the chancellor in a wide-ranging foreign-policy speech in August—in which he urged Europe to “grow more autonomous in all fields.” More importantly, after years of empty talk, Germany is now putting its money where its mouth is, boosting its military budget with a 100-billion-euro ($107.2 billion) investment fund.

Yet, to France’s chagrin, none of this appears to be translating into a reduction of Germany’s reliance on Washington. Berlin used part of its new defense funding to buy dozens of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets, and last month, it formalized the development of a joint missile shield composed of German, American, and possibly Israeli systems. France, which has its own missile shield with Italy, is not participating. In the meantime, other European and Franco-German defense projects appear to be stalled.

We, the French, believe that we need NATO, to which we are one of the strongest military contributors after the U.S., but also a European approach, whereas the Germans, after seeming to be conscious of specific European interests, completely reverted to the American umbrella,” said Bernard de Montferrand, a former French ambassador to Germany. “They don’t want to develop a specifically European defense industry unless it is a German one under American control.

The problem is that “strategic autonomy” means different things in Berlin than in Paris, said Hanns Maull, a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “From the French point of view, strategic autonomy is about French leadership underwritten by the rest of the European Union; from the German point of view, strategic autonomy is really about embedding German national interest and German policies in the European context.”

Despite all of these rifts, old and new, the Franco-German alliance is still alive and kicking—for now. A recent deal to trade French gas for German electric power this winter shows that cooperation between the two countries remains productive. 

“It’s not unusual for France and Germany to be seriously diverging on some issues,” said Elisabeth Humbert-Dorfmüller, co-president of SPD International, the arm of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party abroad. “I don’t think this relationship is in serious difficulty. [Scholz and Macron] are very likely to overcome it.”

After all, many of the biggest steps taken by the EU in recent years were achieved by bridging seemingly unbridgeable gaps between Paris and Berlin. A decade ago, in the darkest days of the eurozone crisis, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel burst into tears in the face of French pressure to open the financial spigots and calm panicky bond markets. She later agreed to a version of that plan. More recently, the EU approved a huge COVID-19 recovery fund only after relentless French efforts ultimately brought Germany onboard.

“When we have a crisis between France and Germany, that’s when we are able to point to the issues that are contentious, spell them out, and try to move beyond them, and I think all the diplomats now working on Franco-German relations are exactly in that space,” Woll said.

Still, the fact that the poster children for European unity no longer have any qualms about airing their dirty laundry in public is a sign that all is not well. “Germany is a giant that is waking up and is still stuttering in its interaction with the world,” Robinet-Borgomano said. But “as Germany embraces its status of great power, France finds itself relegated to a secondary role.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris, where he covers French and international news for various news organizations in Italy and abroad.

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