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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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France braces for new strike turmoil as Macron remains defiant

On Tuesday, France braced for another day of strikes and protests with President Emmanuel Macron remaining defiant over the controversial pensions reform that has sparked turmoil in the country.

France braces for new strike turmoil as Macron remains defiant

The day of action called by unions is the tenth such mobilisation since protests started in mid-January against the law, which includes raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The last such day of strikes and protests on Thursday saw the most violent clashes yet between protesters and security forces as tensions erupted into pitched battles on the streets of Paris.

Nearly two weeks after Macron rammed the new pensions law through parliament using a special provision sidestepping any vote, unions have vowed no let-up in mass protests to get the government to back down.

A state visit to France by Britain’s King Charles III, which had been due to begin on Sunday, was postponed because of the unrest.

READ MORE: Planes, trains and service stations: What to expect in Tuesday’s French strike

‘Target our institutions’

Instead of hosting King Charles for a day of pomp and ceremony, Macron on Monday instead met Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, other cabinet ministers and senior lawmakers for crisis talks at the Elysee Palace, the presidency said.

“We need to continue to hold out the hand to the unions,” a participant in the meeting quoted Macron as saying.

But he said the violent protests “had nothing to do with pensions” and all they had in common “was to target our institutions and security forces”.

Macron accused the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) party of “carrying out a real project to de-legitimise reasonable order, our institutions and their tools”, according to the participant.

In a conciliatory gesture, Borne has scheduled talks over three weeks, including with members of parliament, political parties, local authorities and unions.

If unions accept her offer for talks, Borne is expected to put new measures on the table designed to ease the impact of the pensions law targeting physically demanding jobs, conditions for older workers and retraining.

But early reactions were not promising for the prime minister.

Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union, who has taken an unexpectedly hard line against the pension reform, said he would accept the offer of talks but only if the reform was first “put to one side”.

Berger called on the government to come up with a “very big move on pensions”.

LFI firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Sunday that there was “a very simple way” to return to peaceful relations, and that was “to withdraw the law”.

‘Highly disrupted’

The protest movement against the pension reform has turned into the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second mandate.

Last Thursday, the previous major protest day, police reported 457 arrests across France and injuries to 441 police officers.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said 13,000 members of the security forces — including 5,500 in Paris alone — would be deployed nationwide on Tuesday for the protests.

He urged that “during this period of violence every person must show restraint”.

According to a police source, 650,000-900,000 people were expected to protest nationwide, including up to 100,000 in Paris, with young people expected to be prominent as they express anger over alleged police violence.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is there so much anger in France about pension reform?

Adding to tensions, protesters and police engaged in major clashes at a protest over water storage facilities in Sainte-Soline in southwestern France on Saturday.

Two men injured in the protests were fighting for their lives in hospital, Darmanin said.

Seven protesters were wounded in total as well as 29 members of the security forces.

French police have come under severe criticism for heavy-handed tactics and the IGPN, the internal affairs unit of the French police, has launched 17 investigations into incidents since the pensions protests began.

According to Paris mass transit operator RATP, metros and suburban trains will be “highly disrupted” during Tuesday’s strike action.

Rubbish collectors in the capital are continuing their strike, with close to 8,000 tonnes of garbage piled up in the streets as of Sunday.

Adding to the waste treatment blockage, workers at an incineration plant just outside Paris stopped work on Monday.

About 15 percent of service stations in France are short of petrol because of refinery strikes.

The Louvre in Paris, the world’s most visited museum, was closed on Monday after workers blocked entry to the attraction.