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POLITICS

French-German ties under strain as countries mark 60-year friendship

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a changing world order are straining ties between France and Germany as they prepare to celebrate 60 years since a post-World War II treaty sealed their reconciliation.

French-German ties under strain as countries mark 60-year friendship
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected in Paris on January 22nd to meet President Emmanuel Macron before the pair lead a joint cabinet meeting to mark the Elysee Treaty signed on January 22nd, 1963.

But the two leaders’ relationship is seen as cordial at best.

“Scholz isn’t very European at all, he’s much more ‘Germany first’,” a senior member of Macron’s Renaissance party, who asked not to be named, told reporters this week.

In Paris there’s an impression of German “disinterest in the French-German relationship”, said Jacob Ross, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

The frictions are even being felt by the public, with 36 percent of French respondents and 39 percent of Germans telling pollster Ipsos this week that relations were suffering.

Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

But the legacy of the 1963 treaty – signed in Paris by post-World War II leaders Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle – remains strong on everything from military cooperation to youth exchanges.

And a vast majority in both countries believe French-German unity is vital for the European Union.

Macron’s first term from 2017 was marked by a charm offensive, as the centrist leader tried to restore French economic credibility with Berlin and Brussels through sometimes painful and unpopular reforms.

Eventually his warm ties with Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel helped secure the unprecedented European response to the coronavirus crisis.

A more confident Macron has also been cultivating other European partners, signing bilateral treaties with Italy and Greece in 2021 and another this week with Spain.

“If it’s difficult with Germany right now, and not moving forward as he might hope, then he’ll try to find alternative partners,” Ross said.

Ukraine invasion

Differences between France and Germany have bubbled to the surface since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

Both were initially reluctant to alienate Russia, Germany’s top supplier of natural gas which France had seen as a key global power player.

But as the war’s toll mounted, France sent powerful mobile artillery to Ukraine ahead of the Germans last April and this month announced supplies of light tanks before Washington and Berlin decided to send infantry fighting vehicles.

The head of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) Lars Klingbeil complained to the Die Zeit newspaper last week that the signal “would certainly have been even stronger if all three countries announced their decision at the same time.”

Like Britain and Poland, France is pushing Berlin to deliver modern Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv, or at least to allow re-export of the German model widely sold abroad.

Many observers expected German-French plans to cooperate on next-generation tanks and fighter jets to gain urgency after the war prompted Scholz to declare a “new era” in defence policy.

But “even under the pressure of the events in Ukraine, apparently there isn’t much movement” with contracts for the next stage of tank development still unsigned, researcher Ross said.

France has also been cut out of a German-led European missile defence programme dubbed Sky Shield, expected to use German- and US-made equipment rather than Italian or French alternatives.

In part, the gulf has arisen out of the two nations’ different strategic outlooks.

With its independent nuclear deterrent and seat on the UN Security Council, parts of the French elite still think of the country as “a major power, maybe a medium-sized one, but still on a level with the other members” at the top table, Ross said.

Germany, by contrast, has largely been happy to leave geopolitics to others under the protection of the United States, which still has nuclear weapons and almost 40,000 soldiers stationed on German soil.

Complications

For Berlin, “things have got very complicated because Germany’s economic and political model is being put to the test,” said Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a former French ambassador to Berlin.

In particular, any move by China to ape Russia’s grab for Ukraine in Taiwan would blast Germany’s second vital great-power trading relationship, with some in Berlin now pushing to diversify the country’s foreign markets.

“We have to become aware that … the time may come when China oversteps its bounds,” SPD leader Klingbeil told Die Zeit.

Closer to home, Germany’s European partners are trying to show Berlin that it can’t throw its economic weight around as it used to.

Last year, France and other neighbours kicked up a fuss fearing Germany’s €200 billion bid to subsidise energy costs for its consumers would crowd them out of the market.

Perhaps most troublingly “the relationship has become less real” for ordinary French and Germans, said Gourdault-Montagne, and “lost some of its emotion”.

Ever-fewer people in each country are studying the other’s language, Ross pointed out.

“In 10, 15 or 20 years… fewer people will be in a position to develop deep understanding of the partner country,” he warned.

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POLITICS

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

France braced on Monday for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reform, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday, with 1.2 million seen as the upper limit at 240 demonstrations around the country.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president’s ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff over the next month.

READ MORE: LATEST: What to expect for Tuesday’s French pension strikes

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are expected to cripple public transport and other services again.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism.”

Macron’s reputation

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable.”

Despite the policy being a flagship of his second mandate following his 2022 re-election, Macron has so far sought to stay above the fray and commented only occasionally on the growing tensions.

Darmanin’s intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily Saturday the left were defending an idea of a “society without work and effort”.

Parliamentary battle

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

A majority of French people — 56 percent — think reforming the pension system is necessary, the data showed.

But the proportion convinced of the need for change is falling, down five points since January 12, the survey group said.

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