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08/16/2012 12:57 PM

Rocky Relationship

Attraction and Repulsion Define French-German Relations

By Romain Leick

Together, Germany and France have long been viewed as the motor of European integration. In the midst of the economic crisis, however, old suspicions and rivalries between Europe's two key nations are being reawakened. Once again, the German approach has France's intellectuals mystified -- and the tone is getting sharper.

The unfailingly vigorous chronicler of the glorious and heroic deeds of Frenchmen gazes out of his living room window, across a large square, at the massive Pantheon in Paris, where the grateful fatherland pays homage to its great men (and a few women).

Author Max Gallo, 80, a member of the Académie française, the intellectual high court of the nation, views himself as a "republican patriot." He has spent four decades of his life searching for France's historical identity.

The list of his popular books comprises more than 100 titles. He churns out best-sellers about the French Revolution, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Charles de Gaulle and World War II. Who could lay claim to knowing the soul of the French people, in all of its nostalgic ramifications, better than this keeper of the seal of a long-faded political sense of mission?

Europe seems to have established a special culture in celebrating round anniversaries of important historical events. With yet another approaching, Gallo is currently working on a book about the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I, the seminal catastrophe of the 21st century, in August 1914. During his work, he noticed an intriguing and unsettling parallel to the current crisis in Europe. Just as in 1914, says Gallo, current events could also trigger a chain reaction, driven by nervousness, panic, conflicts of interest, alliance obligations and practical constraints, which could ultimately defy control by politics and diplomacy.

A hundred years ago, says Gallo, it was the mobilization plans of military leaders, worked out down to the last detail, including train departure times, while today it is the anonymous market powers, banks and market traders, with their computerized commands, that have plunged all key players into "prognostic impotence" and a "chaos of improvised decisions."

Doubts in German-French Relationship

Does the historian and author truly believe that the lights could go out again throughout Europe, this time in a fratricidal war over financial and economic policy? In response to Gallo's appealing and yet seemingly absurd comparison, one could point out, as German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has done in his remarks on German-French relations since 1945, that Europeans are no longer making war preparations, but instead are solely focused on concerns about the economy. "They have forsworn the military gods and completed a conversion from heroism to consumerism," says Sloterdijk.

Is this sufficient reassurance? Judging by what committed French intellectuals are saying this summer about their perceptions of the crisis and the distribution of roles between Paris and Berlin, it is clear that they are not willing to simply release the two countries, once enemies and now partners (at least according to official parlance), from their passions and the shackles of history.

Each of the two leading powers, Germany and France, possesses a key, and the keys can only be used together to liberate Europe from its tower of debt and the fetters of the financial markets. If Berlin is willing to cooperate, that is. But the German government's intentions are mysterious. There is an unspoken suspicion that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that unemotional heir to former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a sentimental advocate of France, could be pursuing a hidden agenda, and that her secret goal is to prepare Germany, the world's third-largest exporter, for the fight for survival in the age of globalization.

Doubt has suddenly crept into the German-French relationship, as with an old married couple that has lived together for too long, in benevolent, ritualized indifference, and is suddenly consumed by suspicions. Ironically, this is happening almost exactly 50 years after the two countries' great postwar statesmen, former French President Charles de Gaulle and former German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, attended a "mass of reconciliation" in the magnificent Reims Cathedral on July 8, 1962 and, six months later, in January 1963, signed the Treaty of Friendship between the two countries.

During the horrifically banal remembrance of the solemn Te Deum at Reims by De Gaulle's and Adenauer epigones François Hollande and Angela Merkel a month ago, there was no mistaking the lack of originality of the two protagonists.

Where there should be eternal solidarity, trouble is brewing in the friendship. "It's a disturbance of the osmosis, a growing ignorance of the other partners," says Gallo, whose son, also an historian, has just completed a study visit to Berlin. During his first trip to Germany after the war, Gallo says he had "goose bumps" when he saw uniformed officials at the border. "It was still like stepping into another world."

A 'Lack of Empathy'

Business professor and author Jacques Attali, 68, a longstanding advisor to former President François Mitterrand, who brought the young Hollande into the Elysée Palace as a special advisor, also bemoans the "lack of empathy" that he says prevails today between the neighboring nations, as well as the inability of either side to put itself in the shoes of the other. In psychopathology, this lack of empathy as seen is a precondition for the commitment of atrocities and violence.

Attali cannot understand, for example, why the Germans are developing such an "obsessive fear of inflation" in the discussion over European Central Bank (ECB) bailout programs for debtor countries. The national bankruptcy of the German Reich in the wake of hyperinflation in 1922 and 1923 was a consequence of Germany having lost the war, says Attali. He believes that if there is a parallel to the current situation, it ought to be former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning's grim austerity policy during the post-1929 global economic crisis, which led to depression, mass unemployment, impoverishment and, politically, to the rise of the Nazis. Why, he asks, don't the Germans see the writing on the wall, and why do they use the "fictitious threat" of inflation and an imaginary wealth destruction machine as an argument?

Historian and demographer Emmanuel Todd, one of the harshest critics of Germany's economic ordoliberalism, even sees Merkel's "austerity mandate" and her "pact for eternal austerity" in the European Union as a form of "fiscal fascism." Todd believes that two opposing cultures are colliding in the euro zone: the German culture of free competition and the French culture of fraternal equality. Rivalry produces winners and losers, as well as jealousy, resentment and the willingness to engage in conflict. But a monetary union, says Todd, can only exist in the long term if it gives priority to the principle of equality, just as Germany, with its principle of inter-state fiscal equalization, irons out differences in the standard of living.

Has Geopolitics Returned to Europe?

France has also had its skeptics of the monetary union, who don't see the introduction of the euro as the accomplishment of a great European vision but as a ticking time bomb instead. Gallo, whose wife is a member of the European Parliament, voted no in the French referendums on the Maastricht Treaty and the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, because he predicted a renaissance of nationalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Geopolitics has returned to Europe," he says.

In the 2002 presidential election, Gallo supported the left-wing nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a fierce opponent of the euro who saw the common currency as the beginning of a German instrument of domination or, in a sense, the Trojan horse of an age-old German hegemonic claim that has existed since Napoleon broke apart the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

In his recent book "La France est-elle finie?" (Is France Finished?), Chevènement describes a "Germanocentric" Europe in which "France can make suggestions, but Germany gives the orders." Polls in both countries seem to confirm a renationalization of thought. According to the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop), only 31 percent of the French see Germany and 18 percent of Germans see France as their country's "preferred partner." These figures have been declining since 2003.

Rivalry or Complementarity?

They reveal the fragility of a relationship that is increasingly based more on calculus and less on affection. The two neighbors' view of each other is also a mirror in which each of the partners sees itself. For some time now two discourses, says German studies Jacques-Pierre Gougeon have shaped the image each of the two countries has of itself and the other: the rhetoric of decline and the rhetoric of ascension. Germany has become the absolute reference for France, says Gougeon, while the relationship between the two partners is a mimetic reflection of rivalry, imitation and projection. The French fear of being left behind, both economically and politically, reinforces the German position that it must assume the function of the exemplary role model in Europe. In the end, says Gougeon, this raises a key question: "Rivalry or Complementarity?

The future of Europe depends in large part on the answer to this question, says Gougeon. French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former German teacher, has brought in his fellow academic Gougeon, professor at the University of Franche-Comté in the eastern city of Besançon and research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in Paris, as an advisor. The appointment gives the title of Gougeon's latest book "France/Germany: A Threatened Union?" more than rhetorical significance.

Nevertheless, such different intellectuals as Gallo and philosopher Pascal Bruckner feel that Gougeon's question is the wrong one to ask. The problem, they believe, consists in the fact that the two countries are so closely intertwined -- through geography, history, the economy and politics -- that they cannot become disengaged. "It's like an old couple, who both love and hate each other," says Bruckner. "They can't stand to be apart or together, and divorce isn't an option."

Gallo likes to reconstruct the thousand-year German-French rivalry in various forms. The relationship, he says, has always been characterized by familial closeness and jealous distance, an ambivalence that sometimes produces creative and sometimes conflict-laden, permanent tension. When he saw and heard Merkel butchering the obligatory French words "Vive l'amitié franco-allemande" at the chilly commemorative meeting in Reims, he remembered, with irony, the Oaths of Strasbourg in 842. Half-brothers Charles the Bald and Louis the German pledged loyalty and support to each other. So that their followers would understand them, each man proclaimed his oath in the language of the other side. But by forming the alliance, they also sealed the division and breakup of the empire founded by their grandfather Charlemagne.

The mirror-image relationship, in which the Germans and the French have tied themselves to each other, both culturally and politically, could be described as a relationship between foreign relatives. It is characterized by a mutual fascination, what Bruckner calls "a sort of magnetism," which can be both attractive and repulsive, and has ended in violence again and again, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, World War I and World War II.

'Twilight Approaching over Europe'

Today France is in the process of losing yet another war, but this time it's an economic war, says cultural pessimist Bruckner, who sees a "twilight approaching over Europe."

Economist Henri Sterdyniak can translate the language of victory and defeat into numbers. According to his calculations, France has lost about 10 percentage points of its competiveness against Germany since the turn of the millennium, or roughly since the introduction of the euro. As a result, what was once a relatively even balance of trade is now a gaping deficit of more than €70 billion ($86 billion), while industrial production is declining and the government debt is on the rise, says Sterdyniak.

Sterdyniak is part of a group of economic experts critical of globalization who call themselves "économistes atterrés," or crushed or appalled economists, and are anticipating a possible crash landing of the euro. According to Sterdyniak, the monetary union was an "inane idea" from the very beginning, because it tied together what didn't belong together. He sees three possible scenarios for the future: implosion, decomposition or an emergency exit.

This sounds so menacing that Sterdyniak occasionally interrupts the explanation of his terrible visions with an ironic chuckle. He explains that the Germans would have to choose the emergency exit. In other words, they would have to deliberately compromise their competitiveness, essentially placing lead in their running shoes, that is, by significantly increasing wages and accepting inflation as a consequence.

Of course, government debt would also have to be guaranteed in the euro zone, through the European Central Bank and through joint liability in a fiscal union. This would be done in return for a promise by countries with deficits to consolidate their budgets. But there is an important caveat, says Sterdyniak, namely that the mechanical rules, which he feels are too rigid, of the fiscal pact Germany is imposing on all others are completely unsuitable." Sterdyniak calls the fiscal pact an alleged debt relief machine that leads only more deeply into debt." Does he believe that Merkel will play along? It would be like demanding that the Germans stop being German, says Sterdyniak. Like in the fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper," the ant remains implacable toward the grasshopper. For this reason, says Sterdyniak, the most likely scenario is that Europe will continue along the path that Merkel has already proposed, that of slow decomposition, the rotting of the euro zone.

'The Tone Is Getting Sharper'

In the midst of such discussions, it seems that the preparations for the search for a scapegoat are already underway. The instrument of torture that can be shown to the Germans ought to be familiar from history: isolation, encirclement and pillory.

Anti-German resentments have not become virulent in France yet, and yet they are simmering just a few centimeters below the surface. "We are not in an open marital dispute, but the tone is getting sharper," says philosopher Bruckner, describing the psycho-political constitution of the troubled couple.

German intellectuals take a more relaxed view. In his essay Theory of the Post-War Periods, Sloterdijk -- who, next to Jürgen Habermas, is one of the few contemporary German thinkers respected in France -- argues that the pragmatic way leads to a "benevolent and nonviolent coexistence by means of mutual disinterest and defascination." "Don't be too interested in each other!" he counseled the archenemies and friends of convenience.

That was at the end of 2007, shortly after the financial crisis had begun its disastrous course. But the old demons are still lurking. What if Gallo were right with his hair-raising feeling that Europe, through its financial policies, could be drifting toward an August crisis like the one in 1914, with Greece assuming the role of Serbia, which Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) wants to make an example of?

Political veteran Attali, who was there in 1984 when Mitterand and Kohl shook hands across the trenches of Verdun, believes that it is politically dangerous and even foolish to declare a war between France and Germany to be inconceivable for all time. According to Attali, there are only two opposing strategies to overcome the crisis: Either Europe's core countries, led by France and Germany, pull themselves together and form a true federation, or there will no longer be a euro in a few years.

And if the latter happens, he says, there are numerous possibilities, ranging from a decline into geopolitical insignificance, to more or less outmoded regionalism and a return to drama in European reality.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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