Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

One day during the 1990s, former European Commission official Riccardo Perissich, an Italian citizen, bumped into then-European Commissioner Manuel Marín in a corridor of their office building in Brussels. Clearly upset by something, the commissioner, a Spaniard, said to him: “Riccardo, do you know what you are? You are a question.” When Perissich looked puzzled, Marín went on: “Only the French and Germans are allowed to have problems in this place. The British are allowed to have difficulties from time to time. The rest of us are only allowed to have questions.”

Perissich, now retired, recently brought up this anecdote when describing the importance of a well-functioning Franco-German relationship for the European Union. As he indicated, there is a lot of friction between France and Germany at the moment. Germany stands accused of behaving in an un-European manner with its large national energy subsidy packages for citizens and industry, its continued unilateral deal-making with China, and its insufficient financial and material support for Ukraine. It’s so bad that a joint parliamentary meeting was canceled in October. Perissich points out, however, that in the EU there are almost always problems between France and Germany. And solving them often has priority over solving other countries’ problems.

A large part of the current Franco-German friction is therefore unsurprising. But there is a deeper malaise, too, between the two countries—more worrying because it may be more difficult to solve.

One day during the 1990s, former European Commission official Riccardo Perissich, an Italian citizen, bumped into then-European Commissioner Manuel Marín in a corridor of their office building in Brussels. Clearly upset by something, the commissioner, a Spaniard, said to him: “Riccardo, do you know what you are? You are a question.” When Perissich looked puzzled, Marín went on: “Only the French and Germans are allowed to have problems in this place. The British are allowed to have difficulties from time to time. The rest of us are only allowed to have questions.”

Perissich, now retired, recently brought up this anecdote when describing the importance of a well-functioning Franco-German relationship for the European Union. As he indicated, there is a lot of friction between France and Germany at the moment. Germany stands accused of behaving in an un-European manner with its large national energy subsidy packages for citizens and industry, its continued unilateral deal-making with China, and its insufficient financial and material support for Ukraine. It’s so bad that a joint parliamentary meeting was canceled in October. Perissich points out, however, that in the EU there are almost always problems between France and Germany. And solving them often has priority over solving other countries’ problems.

A large part of the current Franco-German friction is therefore unsurprising. But there is a deeper malaise, too, between the two countries—more worrying because it may be more difficult to solve.

Franco-German frictions have indeed been normal in postwar Europe, and for a simple reason. Before European unification started in the 1950s, Germany and France, rivaling for power on the continent, fought three major wars—from 1870 to 1871, from 1914 to 1918, and from 1939 to 1945—in which millions of people lost their lives and much of Europe was destroyed. This is why European unification focused on managing conflicts between those two powerful countries and not on, say, those involving Luxembourg or Denmark. Part of the European Union’s mission to this day is to ensure that France and Germany keep solving their problems peacefully. For 70 years, the two countries—with their different political and economic cultures, rarely agreeing on anything—have not fired a single shot at each other. In today’s Europe, they shoot with words, not ammunition.

For seven decades, it has worked—even though, as Perissich writes, those who come from other EU countries often look at the frequent Franco-German squabbles “with a mixture of hope, irritation, and also frustration at not actually being able to participate in them.”

Most of the current Franco-German problems can be traced back to current circumstances. The world is changing, forcing the European Union to change too. The EU is in overdrive at the moment to help Paris, Berlin, and others find compromises on energy policy, budgetary problems, security, and other difficulties caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. As always, officials in Brussels act as midwives. They work hard on European proposals and prepare ministerial councils and summits for European heads of state and government. For the media, there is plenty of drama, with off-record briefings by anonymous diplomats and politicians blaming the other side or leaking details of negotiations held behind closed doors. Again: This is normal practice. It probably indicates that some compromises are within reach.

But there is a deeper malaise, too, that goes to the heart of the postwar relationship between Paris and Berlin. French economist Jacques Attali, a former special advisor to President François Mitterrand and the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, recently wrote that a “difference of long-term strategic interests” has emerged that, in his view, can be addressed only with a significant European step forward. However, with direct memory of Franco-German wars fading, he fears both countries’ current leaders do not realize this sufficiently. As a result, “war between France and Germany becomes possible again.”

The current divergence between France and Germany goes back to one of the core functions of the European Union: to prevent Germany from ever becoming so dominant in Europe again. So far, this has been a resounding success. Seventy years after European unification started, Germans have probably become the world’s foremost pacifists. Their military, the Bundeswehr, is notoriously underfunded. It is often said that Germans themselves are more afraid of German power than all other Europeans combined. This explains why Wandel durch Handel—“change through trade,” the strategy of using trade relations to induce political change—which is how the EU operates, suits Germany so well. Meanwhile France, which increasingly falls behind economically and whose financial stability depends on German euro guarantees, takes the lead in Europe’s foreign, security, and defense policies.

This division of labor suited both countries, as well as the EU, fine for many years. France and Germany complemented each other, allowing each to focus on what it did best. Germany could ignore geopolitics and concentrate on trade instead; France, as the continent’s only nuclear power with a serious army and a seat at the U.N. Security Council, could radiate puissance, without too much finger-pointing to French debts or deficits. It had long been clear, though, that the relationship had become unbalanced. In Europe, Germany often makes itself smaller than it really is, while France has a tendency to do the opposite.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this underlying divergence has suddenly come to the surface of EU politics, causing friction for both sides. Because of the war, Germany now has two major headaches. First, its growth model is endangered both by the sanctions against Russia and by the abrupt cutoff from abundant Russian gas. For the first time in years, Europe’s central economic actor, on which so many of its fellow EU members depend, finds itself importing more than it exports. This is the reason that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was so at pains to defend his much-criticized trip to China this month.

The second German headache is the fact that it is not France that shields Europe against the Russian threat, but NATO. All of a sudden, Germany realizes that Europe urgently needs a security and defense policy for which it cannot rely on France. French President Emmanuel Macron has interesting ideas about Europe’s “strategic autonomy” but is vague about what it means and under whose leadership this should take shape. This is why Scholz’s new priority is to improve Germany’s relations with Washington. The fact that he puts his cards on Atlantic solidarity, while knowing it is China—not Ukraine or Europe—that really keeps policymakers in Washington awake, speaks volumes. Feeling exposed, Berlin is seeking cover.

France feels snubbed. The exposure of its military limits is hurtful—as French columnist Luc de Barochez wrote, “it barely managed to send eighteen tanks to Ukraine.” As a consequence, Paris showers Berlin with criticism. Why is Berlin striking out on its own after years of not responding to Macron’s numerous European initiatives? Why did Scholz travel to China alone? Why did Berlin order American F-35 fighter planes this year, not French Rafales? The fact that Germany suddenly takes unilateral initiatives without coordination with France upsets the delicate balance between Paris and Berlin. “The German attitude is egoistic, short-termist and does not take Europe’s interests into account, despite the fact that the risks are well established,” Harvard Business School’s Philippe Le Corre told the newspaper Le Monde.

In the past, geopolitical changes have caused deep Franco-German divergences too. Leaders solved this by taking a leap forward into European integration. This happened, for instance, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when East Germany and West Germany reunited and France was suddenly confronted with an outsized partner. The two countries’ leaders, France’s François Mitterrand and Germany’s Helmut Kohl, then managed to convince the other 10 EU member states that a major reset of the European project was needed. This led, among other things, to the creation of the European common currency, the euro.

Some Europeans, aware of these historical developments, advocate another major reset now. Attali, for instance, suggests addressing the Franco-German divergence by Europeanizing the continent’s defense. The EU, however, is much larger now than in 1989. Whether Scholz and Macron can agree on the need for another major new European project and then convince their 25 colleagues remains to be seen. What is indisputably true, however, is that while France and Germany may be relatively less powerful in today’s Europe than they were before, they are still dominant enough for the rest of the continent to have to hope for good relations between them—just like in Commissioner Manuel Marín’s days.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .
Tag: Europe

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.