Breaking through Angela Merkel’s unflappable calm and rousing her to anger used to take a lot of effort. Yet this was achieved by Emmanuel Macron four years ago, when France’s Great Geopolitical Seer breezily announced, in an interview, and without any warning to France’s allies, the “brain death” of Nato.
“I understand your desire for disruptive politics, but I’m tired of picking up the pieces,” the former German Chancellor snapped back. “Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and take tea together.”
The year was 2019. Since then, not only were the cups not re-glued, but the French-German European “couple”, as it was long dubbed by the French side (but never the German one, who found the expression odd, if not downright distasteful), is now a thing of the past. France and Germany’s alliance, fostered since the early days of the Common Market by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, then consciously deepened by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, and François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, is by now perceived as largely pointless in Berlin, something Paris is belatedly only cottoning on to.
And so, in a last-ditch attempt to repair rock-bottom relations, the members of the German and French governments, both trying this informality thing that’s so alien to either culture, are to embark on a bizarre “getting to know each other” boating and drinking trip (out of beer steins, not tea cups).
As if dreamt up by hyped-up consultants, the “team-building” outing will see the entire French cabinet decamp to Hamburg, joining their counterparts without a formal agenda, meetings or final statements — in the absence of any press, cameras and microphones, which is bound to bewilder the French lot. The two-day shindig will end at a fish market.
Whether this will yield results is frankly anybody’s guess. We are very far from Charles de Gaulle’s bold gesture, barely a decade after the end of the Second World War, in extending a friendly hand to Germany, a country that had invaded France three times in the space of 80 years. Perhaps only Le Général could make it work symbolically, to push what was initially a manufacturing and trade alliance for steel and coal into unrolling the dream of the European project’s founding fathers, hoping to bring a lasting peace on the Continent.
Over the years, the trade-off became very clear: Germany brought her newly built economic miracle to the table; France washed off the sin of Nazism and enabled the Federal Republic to have a political voice it would otherwise have lacked.
It worked because the two countries had very complementary strengths. France, a nuclear power and a member of the UN’s Security Council, has a strong army and navy capable of worldwide deployment, and, until recently, had the corresponding will to act. Traumatised by the past, Germany has a small army.
German public opinion is notably pacifist, sometimes to the point of serving the interests of foreign powers. The French still respect Napoleon and military prowess. Both countries have excellent engineers and different approaches to industry, the French valuing big state-driven top-down projects and the Germans high-performing midsized private companies producing high value goods.
But as a new generation of Germans came to power, the impulse to apologise for the past weakened, and the misunderstanding gap widened. Policy changes started diverging as Germany flexed her muscles, especially on energy choices, with the French touting their long expertise in nuclear power, while the German phobia of all things nuclear drove them to disastrous choices.
Joint projects started falling through. Areas of dissension have added up. Soon, contempt was undiplomatically voiced from both sides, Emmanuel Macron’s stinging asides being only the most obvious.
The Ukraine war did reveal some hitherto papered-over cracks in the French-German relationship, but the situation had been building up for much longer. All of which matters because, with Britain gone from Europe, the whole project could gradually be brought to a standstill in practical terms. This will take more than a few beers and baguettes to fix.