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Analysis: France - Germany

No cuddly teddy bears but Hollande and Merkel together 50 years after Franco-German Elysée treaty


François Hollande did not phone Angela Merkel to tell her that France would be dropping bombs in Mali on the night of 11 January, say his advisors. 


In the Merkozy era that would have been unthinkable, so close was the co operation between Paris and Berlin.

Some even suggest that Germany’s decision to provide only a few transport planes to help the French intervention in Mali, was linked to Hollande’s failure to keep Berlin in the picture.

François and Angela are smiling in the photos to mark their 50th wedding anniversary but everyone knows this modern couple, where each has baggage from the past, is going through a difficult patch.

Observers of the Franco-German relationship all agree that personal chemistry between the two leaders can considerably oil the wheels of their working relationship.

At the moment there is almost none between Merkel and Hollande but that is fairly typical of Franco-German partnerships which often take time to develop.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy had very different personalities, but the euro crisis forced them together, leading to a close relationship.

Initially uncomfortable with Sarkozy’s casual style, Angela Merkel warmed to it and presented him with a little teddy bear on the birth of his baby Giulia.

When Merkel speaks directly to François Hollande they converse in English, otherwise they both use interpreters.

They use first names and have now progressed (using interpreters in French and German) to using the more familiar “tu” and “du” instead of the politely formal “vous” and “zie”.

Exactly a year ago, presidential candidate Hollande made a major campaign speech, in which he boasted that he would propose to Berlin a new version of the Franco-German treaty, to mark the fifty 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty.

It would be based, he said, on a new relationship of “truth and equality”.

The Germans let it be known that they were not interested, no doubt uncomfortable with the oxymoron in his fine-sounding campaign rhetoric.

For the truth is that the relationship is not equal.

It used to be, because each country neatly complemented the other to make a formidable partnership.

50 years of Franco-German partnerships

An economically-dominant post-war Germany knew it was less of a threat to other European countries if linked to France with its diplomatic clout. France gained a perfect mate with which to construct a strong pan-European entity where it could punch above its weight in the world.

Claire Demesmay, head of the programme on Franco-German relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations, in Berlin, maintains that the balance tilted in Germany’s favour with the fall of Communism.

“The end of the cold war removed France’s special position. To be a nuclear power did not mean so much, so France lost political influence, while it didn’t gain economic power.”

Before the fall of the wall and the re unification of Germany, both France and Germany had roughly equal-sized populations, but Germany suddenly became a neighbour with roughly 20 million more inhabitants than the 60 million in France.

As the European Union became larger to include many former Eastern bloc countries, its centre of gravity moved eastwards, putting Germany at the heart of the EU and further weakening France’s position.

But it remains true that even if France is a weaker partner, the partnership is still vital to the European Union.

Each time Paris and Berlin have flirted with other European countries, with an eye to creating rival partnerships (Berlin-London, Paris-London, Paris-Rome), they have ended up by turning back towards each other.

The two countries are so different that between them that they encompass most European Union concerns, so that the pre-cooked compromises reached between France and Germany before EU summits, although annoying for other EU countries, often satisfy everyone’s demands.

The relationship has survived 50 years and achieved its most important aim of avoiding another war between two neighbours with a very bloody history.

But the Germans were not keen on French plans to mark today’s anniversary with grand ceremonies heavy with symbolism.

The Elysée Treaty, signed in 1963 between France’s General De Gaulle and West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, heralded a new era of friendship between the two countries, who had fought three wars.

The treaty formalised a system of close cooperation which has since been the building block of European Unity.

The treaty provides for regular meetings between French and German leaders and ministers and strong educational and cultural links between the two nations.

Instead, a shared Franco-German cabinet meeting and a joint sitting of the two parliaments in Berlin was agreed. No announcement of an ambitious joint project for the future of Europe.

Europe is a divisive issue in France’s ruling Socialist Party, and Hollande is not keen on big new projects which might need ratification.

Jean Quatremer, correspondent for the French newspaper Libération suggests that François Hollande remains traumatised by France’s rejection in 2005 of the EU constitution. It led to deep divisions among Socialists and seriously undermined Hollande’s leadership of the Party.

Thomas Klau, a German researcher with the European Council on Foreign Relations, who is based in Paris, says Hollande and Merkel’s relationship is not as poor as they each like to make out.

With elections coming up for Merkel and German tabloid Bild headlining last autumn “Is France the new Greece?”, it is not in Merkel’s interest to demonstrate too much friendliness towards Hollande.

Likewise, says Klau, Hollande is keen to show the French that he is not Merkel’s poodle, and that in his view, unlike Sarkozy, he is able to boss her about.

Indeed Klau suggests that Sarkozy did the reverse, playing up his relationship with Merkel in order to calm the stormy currency markets at the height of the Euro crisis.

The immediate future looks as complicated as ever. Ahead lie what are expected to be acrimonious European negotiations on the EU budget and the Common Agricultural Policy. Paris and Berlin are in opposite camps on both issues.

Klau suggests there are fiscal harmony and energy are two policy areas where Paris and Berlin should work closely together for the future of Europe.

And though the immediate drama of the euro has now subsided, the underlying visions between France and Germany on the direction of the eurozone remain different.

Germany wants to ensure economic solidity before increasing solidarity. Hollande wants to make solidarity a priority.

If they fail to find a shared path and just tread water, it will not be long before Europe is plunged back into crisis.


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