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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: The Franco-German ‘couple’ is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble

As the French and German leaders celebrate 60 years of friendship, John Lichfield looks at a troubled past and an uncertain future for the EU's power couple.

OPINION: The Franco-German 'couple' is crucial to the EU but the relationship is in trouble
France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris. Photo by Christophe Ena / POOL / AFP

In 1870, as the Prussian army advanced on Paris, Ernest Renan, the French philosopher, observed sadly: “This misunderstanding can only get worse.”

That was one of the greatest prophetic understatements of history. The relationship between France and Germany was littered for the next 75 years with bullets, barbed-wire and graves.

For sixty years now, the two countries have officially been  friends – or more than friends. They have been diplomatic “besties”. They have been the indispensable “couple” at the heart of the European Union. They have been the “motor” which drove the creation of the EU and its most ambitious policies, from the single currency to borderless freedom of movement.

 Last Sunday President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz and their entire governments met in Paris to commemorate the signing of the Elysée Treaty which officially ended Franco-German enmity on January 22nd 1963.

Macron spoke grandiloquently of the two countries as “two souls in one body”. Scholz said, more prosaically, that France and Germany were a “motor” whose fuel was not “flattery” but a “determination to convert controversy into common action”.

The two governments proceeded to agree on …not very much.

Last weekend’s inter-governmental meeting replaced a summit at Fontainebleau in October which was cancelled at the last moment by Macron after Paris and Berlin failed to end a string of quarrels about energy, anti-inflation subsidies and arms procurement.

A couple of those quarrels have since been patched up. Several remain poisonously unresolved, including a multi-billion-euro German plan to shield its industry from high energy prices. France says that this will damage competition in the European single market.

Paris wants Berlin to agree an EU-wide anti-inflation policy, backed by EU loans. Berlin refuses.

There have been many Franco-German quarrels in the last 60 years. The present crop are, arguably, no worse than those which have gone before.

What has changed is that Germany and France are weaker – Germany economically, France diplomatically.

Germany’s economic model (dependant on Russian gas and Chinese cooperation) has been undermined by the Ukraine war.

The status of the France-Germany as Europe’s “first couple” has been challenged by the perception – right or wrong – that the two countries placed too much confidence in Vladimir Putin before the Ukraine invasion and that they have been too faint in their support for Kyiv since.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine seemed, in one respect, to strengthen Macron’s argument that Europe should be able defend its own “sovereignty”, both militarily and  economically. It has also undermined it.

The importance of the US military commitment to Europe have been re-born. Eastern European and Baltic countries have asserted themselves. They have lost patience with France and Germany.

Franco-German agreements used to be essential to the running of the EU. They are now viewed, from the east, with some suspicion. As a result, a new generation of German diplomats and politicians – some not all – view the Paris-Berlin partnership as limiting or unnecessary.

The crisis has also coincided with the arrival of a new German Chancellor at the head of a quarrelsome Left-Green-centre coalition. Previously, French officials say, nothing could happen unless Angela Merkel agreed. Now, they say, nothing much happens even if Olaf Scholz is broadly on our side.

In a broader sense, the Franco-German post-war friendship has always been fragile.

The treaty signed at the Elysée Palace 60 years ago spoke of a “profound change in the relationship between the two peoples”.  But the “relationship” between the French and German peoples never matched the relationship between governments and political elites.

The old visceral enmity is largely gone but prejudices and generalisations still colour the view across the Rhine in both directions. The French see the Germans as disciplined, predictable, hard-working and humourless. The Germans see the French as charming, witty, superficial, arrogant, lazy and unreliable.

In the 19th century – and up to the middle of this century – the French and Germans fought and hated each other but remained fascinated by the culture of the other. Since the 1960s, the two governments have worked intimately together, but the two peoples have increasingly lost interest in each other.

Two anecdotes.

When my eldest son was 15, we hosted a party for his school friends and their German language exchanges. (The wooden floor in our Paris flat never recovered.)

The kids got on well but they spoke to each other only in English. The teaching of French in Germany and German and France has since all but collapsed.

Secondly, some years ago I caught a direct overnight train from Munich to Paris. By the time it crossed the Rhine, there were almost no German passengers. A new cast of French travellers boarded in Strasbourg. Instead of one train, it was two trains using the same carriages.

Two minor – but maybe not so minor – announcements were made after last weekend’s Franco-German summit. There will be 60,000 free rail tickets for young French and German people to visit one another’s countries this summer. The two governments have applied pressure on their rail companies to start a direct high-speed rail service between Paris and Berlin.

Both are excellent ideas. The glue of a broader, more popular friendship between the countries could be important in the 21st century.

The Franco-German partnership, post-the Ukraine conflict in a 27-country EU and counting, will never again be as powerful and central as it was in circa 1970-2000. It remains crucial all the same. It is difficult to imagine that the EU  can thrive, or even survive, if the “couple” divorces or the “motor” goes into reverse gear.

The misunderstandings will continue. Lets hope they do not get worse.

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ELECTIONS

Explained: The party manifestos for France’s snap elections

As the formal campaign period begins in France's snap legislative elections, here's a look at the manifestos of the main parties and what they mean for foreigners living here.

Explained: The party manifestos for France's snap elections

Monday marks the start of the official campaign period for France’s snap legislative elections – a brief two-week campaign before the first round of voting on Sunday, June 30th followed by round two a week later on July 7th. 

Here’s a look at the manifestos of the main parties, with a particular emphasis on any immigration policies that would affect the lives of foreigners in France, or those planning to move here some day.

Renaissance

First up is Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party Renaissance – its platform was unveiled by Macron himself in a televised press conference, with a more detailed programme unveiled later by prime minister Gabriel Attal.

The party is at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the programme, since its main policy goals are already known and it is limited by financial and other factors from announcing any especially bold new goals. The result was that Macron in his launch speech was left to talk about policies that had already been announced or vague goals such as holding a ‘national debate’ on France’s secularism policy.

Macron also framed the election as a ‘battle against extremism’ saying: “I hope that when the time comes, men and women of goodwill who will have been able to say no to the extremes will come together… to build a shared, sincere project that is useful to the country.” 

Programme – Much of the programme will be familiar since Macron was after all re-elected in 2022 and set out his five-year plan at the time. On the economy and the environment, the president said that his party would continue to grow foreign investment in France, cut unemployment and work towards the ‘green reindustrialisation’ of the country – a Macron pet project to create jobs and industry in France by embracing new green technologies such as car batteries.

He also re-committed to France’s domestic nuclear energy programme, and to France’s strong support for Ukraine.

Among the new parts were a ‘great national debate’ on the tricky subject of French state secularism (laïcité) and limits to access to screens for children – as recommended by a commission of experts.

Attal also unveiled some new measures on the key issue of the cost-of-living, with promises to triple the ‘Macron bonus’ paid to some employees from €3,000 a year to €10,000, index-linking pensions to inflation, reducing utility bills by 15 percent next winter and help for parents in buying school supplies.

He also proposes axing the notaire fee (in reality a kind of tax on home purchases) for any property purchased for under €250,000 and setting up an extra renovation fund to give grants to property-owners to repairs and energy works.

Some ongoing Macronist legislation such as changing the law on assisted dying has been interrupted on its journey through parliament, but would likely restart if the party wins a majority.

The party’s programme makes no specific suggestions for changes to the immigration system, but it did just introduce a new immigration law in January that – among other things – introduces a language test requirement for certain types of residency cards and raises the language level required for French citizenship through naturalisation.

Front Populaire

France’s largest leftist political parties have struck an election pact not to stand candidates against each other – in order to avoid dividing the leftist vote.

This means that the hard-left La France Insoumise will field 229 candidates, the centre-left Parti Socialiste will field 175, the Green EELV 92 and the Communists 50. It also means that the parties are presenting a single, joint manifesto under the banner of Nouveau Front Populaire – which has been the subject of much argument and some awkward compromises.

Programme – much of the programme is concerned with cancelling recent Macronist laws. Among the laws it says it will cancel are the new immigration bill – the one that introduces French language tests for certain types of residency card and raises the language level required for French citizenship.

The manifesto also proposes introducing a 10-year carte de séjour residency card ‘as the standard card’ – at present the standard model is for one-year cards initially and then move on to five-year and then 10-year cards, although there are significant variations based on your personal status (eg working, student, retired or family member).

Also set for the chop are Macron’s changes to unemployment benefits plus a cancellation of the price rises in electricity and gas and the reintroduction of the ‘wealth tax’ scrapped by Macron in 2018. Meanwhile the pension age would be dropped down to 60 (cancelling Macron’s law raising it from 62 to 64 and dropping it another two years).

The party would also raise the Smic (minimum wage) to €1,600 a month.

The environment forms a key part of the manifesto with a range of green incentives plus tax and financing rules that would clamp down on fossil fuels.

On foreign policy there are some delicately worded compromises since views on Ukraine and Gaza had previously split the leftist alliance. The group promises to “unfailingly defend the sovereignty and freedom of the Ukrainian people” including by delivering weapons and writing off debt. On Gaza, the party would recognise the Palestinian state and embargo arms supplies to Israel.

Policy towards the EU – a topic that divides the left – is left to one side.

Rassemblement National

The far-right Rassemblement National party will be joined by at least some candidates from the right-wing Les Republicains party, although the internal party divide over that pact will see some LR candidates independently. 

Programme – the party makes immigration one of its key concerns, with a commitment to “drastically reduce legal and illegal immigration and deport foreign criminals” listed as a priority.

The programme opposes both non-economic migration and family reunification – no detail is given on changes to the visa or residency card system in this area, but it seems likely that anyone wanting to move for non-work related reasons (eg retirees) would face restrictions. Likewise spouse visas would be affected by any changes to family reunification rules.

Non-French citizens would only be able to access social benefits such as housing benefits or caring allowances after working in France for five years and there would also be a ‘French first’ preference for access to employment and social housing.

Residency permits would be withdrawn for any non-French citizens who have been unemployed for more than one year.

Asylum claims would exclusively be processed outside France.

When it comes to French citizenship, the party wants to abolish the droit du sol, which gives the right to French citizenship to children born in France to foreign parents and limit access to citizenship for adults “on the basis of merit and assimilation” – it’s not clear how this would differ from the current system where candidates must already prove that they speak French and understand French culture and politics.

The party also has a strong line on law and order – doubling the number of magistrates, increasing fines for certain offences, adding those convicted of street harassment to the sex offenders’ register and creating a “presumption of legitimate defence” for police officers who kill or injure members of the public.

This article is part of a series on election platforms in France, we will look at each party’s economic platform in a separate piece. You can follow all the latest election news in our election section HERE, and you can also sign up here to receive our bi-weekly election breakdown during the campaign period

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