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Analysis
France, Germany tandem falls on hard times

France, Germany tandem falls on hard times

Berlin pushed into leadership – but doesn’t want it 

by Michael Stürmer

Mon 10 Nov 2014

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the driving force behind the common European currency, liked to quote the advice of his most illustrious predecessor Konrad Adenauer: ‘Bow three times before the French tricolore’. That was not so much an expression of German post-war modesty, more a confirmation that the uneven relationship with the neighbour across the Rhine was as difficult as it was unavoidable.

Recent French government visits to Berlin, notably by Prime Minster Manuel Valls, can be summed up in the French expression when a marriage has hit the rocks: Il faut sauver les apparences. Protocol requires that both sides maintain a stiff upper lip. Paris demands that others respect the exception française, while the Germans are waking up to a new experience of being pushed into leadership against their will.

As a consequence of economic performance and financial stamina, Germany is being elevated into pole position. But this is happening more through European necessity than because of any master plan, which is conspicuous by its absence.

The Franco-German relationship flourishes, more or less. This is demonstrated by bilateral youth exchanges, by cordial town twinning arrangements on both sides of the Rhine, by the Franco-German brigade, by a number of shared armaments programmes, and by the roaring success of Franco-German aerospace group EADS. Even where the Germans are showing notable hesitation, as in security and defence matters, the French offer understanding and tact vis à vis German reluctance to engage militarily in the world at large.

Germany’s relatively robust economy and dominance in matters monetary and financial are testing French self-respect and indeed the French way of life. Tenir le rang (hold the line), the hidden motto of the French Fifth Republic and its ruling elite, Gaullist or socialist, is becoming more difficult by the day, except in military matters.

France maintains, at a high price, a tenuous political leadership which comprises the mission civilisatrice, military interventions in North Africa as in the Middle East, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a place in the concert of the established nuclear powers. 

The European Union, when it celebrates itself and its achievements, tends to applaud itself as a grand project of peace – as if, since 1945, war had ever been on the agenda between the neighbours on the Rhine. During the Cold War, Europe relied on US nuclear guarantees. The German eagle was substantially reduced in size and energy. In strategic and security terms, Germany was both chessboard and potential battleground. The EU’s role as keeper of the European peace sounded more than a little far-fetched.

After the Berlin wall fell in 1989, when the moment of truth finally arrived and robust peacekeeping was indeed required in the Balkans and elsewhere, Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jacques Poos fantasised that ‘the hour of Europe’ had sounded. In fact, EU was happy to see the Americans doing most of the heavy lifting.

When the Berlin wall fell, both Chancellor Kohl and French President François Mitterrand feared that the dynamics of German unification and the implosion of the Soviet Union would disrupt beyond recognition the established security architecture of western Europe. A common (later single) European currency was considered the new means of maintaining balance. The new currency arrangements were conceived not only as a technocratic means to calm the markets and a counterweight to the dollar, but as a vital part of efforts to stabilise Franco-German disequilibrium.

The edifice was underpinned by the partners’ vows of eternal financial and monetary virtue. The Maastricht criteria on state debt, inflation and long-term budgetary discipline were expected to force together, in just a few years, countries that had grown apart over centuries, following separate and often idiosyncratic rules and traditions, much of this in common, but mainly conceived and developed separately. Vater Staat in Germany and l’etat protecteur in France, respectively the state as provider and protector, may look much the same, but these concepts are founded on different principles and they have radically different implications.

Mitterrand used to warn, philosophically, that you must give time to time. In reality the French and Germans had little time. They gambled by putting the European clocks forward. But time (as Bismarck warned us one and a half centuries ago) is no respecter of politicians’ wishes – and it failed to do their bidding.

Prof. Dr. Michael Stürmer, member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, is a former adviser and speech-writer to Chancellor Kohl.

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