French-German relationship under strain as EU faces harsh tests

Signs are growing that the crucial partnership between Germany and France is stumbling, experts say, just as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and soaring energy costs place extreme stress on the EU.

French-German relationship under strain as EU faces harsh tests
French President Emmanuel Macron meets Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brussels on October 20, 2022. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

Amid disagreements over energy, foreign policy, arms procurement and more, a joint cabinet meeting has been pushed back to January, while a parliamentary gathering of French, German and Polish MPs was cancelled at the weekend.

There have always been “difficult moments” in the relationship, said France’s former ambassador to China, Britain and Russia, Sylvie Bermann.

“But we’re clearly in a period of crisis, and the Franco-German relationship seems more strained than ever,” she said.

It did not help that the Ukraine war erupted when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had barely taken office, with insiders saying French President Emmanuel Macron’s relationship with him is nothing like as warm as with former chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he exchanged text messages regularly.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron had a warm relationship during her time as chancellor. Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Scholz and Macron are set to meet one-on-one in Paris on Wednesday following last week’s gathering of European leaders.

“There’s a necessary learning process” as Germany’s three-party governing coalition finds its feet, said Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, a German politics expert at French think-tank Institut Montaigne.

“In future, the German government will have to build compromises with more dialogue, more connection with its European partners,” he added.

The Berlin-Paris axis has been the foundation of EU compromise for decades, and the bloc’s two biggest and wealthiest countries are still more critical since Britain’s departure.

Europe’s economic heavyweight Germany has sowed discord with plans for a national €200-billion energy subsidy, rather than an EU-wide agreement to cap prices.

“I don’t think it’s good for Germany or for Europe if it isolates itself,” Macron said last week of the plans, which smaller countries fear could drive up prices for them.

Ironically, the complaints from France and elsewhere come as Germany appears to be caving to long-standing demands, analyst Robinet-Borgomano said.

France has spent 10 years “firstly rebuking (Germany) for not spending enough on defence, for not having a strategic or geopolitical vision, and second rebuking it for staying stuck in austerity policy and spending no money”, he pointed out.

That’s “exactly what we’re complaining about today”, Robinet-Borgomano added.

Berlin “is investing more to stimulate growth and domestic demand, it’s taking on a leadership role and is building European defence” with massive new spending following Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

The energy subsidy dust-up was brushed under the carpet with an agreement for an energy price “roadmap” at last week’s EU summit.

France has also snubbed Germany’s pleas to build a new overland gas pipeline – known as MidCat – from import terminals in Spain and Portugal to European networks.

Instead, Macron last week announced an undersea pipeline from Barcelona to Marseille, with no timetable for completion or details of its funding.

Meanwhile in defence – a field where France and Germany have striven to display unity – differences have also been forced to the surface.

Paris has stayed out of a Germany-led plan for an anti-missile shield stretching across much of Europe, which has so far brought 14 countries including Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands on board.

One Macron adviser said France fears a “restart of the arms race in Europe”, and will stick to its own air defence systems.

Analyst Robinet-Borgomano suggested that Paris was in fact annoyed that the shield would use US- and Israeli-made equipment rather than a French-Italian alternative.

France “ought to have pushed for interoperability between systems to ensure European sovereignty, we can see that it’s about competing for leadership in European defence”, he said.

A still thornier issue is a plan to develop a German-French-Spanish next-generation fighter jet known as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS).

Contracts for the next phase of development on the plane, supposed to replace existing fleets of French Rafales and German and Spanish Eurofighters by 2040, have not yet been signed.

“There’s political agreement, but it’s jammed at the level of the companies,” one senior French official said.

French manufacturer Dassault “is afraid of losing its market position” if forced to work with competitor Airbus, they added.

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ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.