What a country! The City of Love with its Eiffel Tower, Saint Tropez, Brittany and Normandy, a land of wine, baguettes, champagne and camembert. It is a country defined by culture, fashion, luxury and savoir vivre.
Germany's view of its neighbors, the result of a new cross-border survey on the occasion of this month's 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty, reads like a mixture between a menu and a travel guide. France is seen as the enviable homeland of cultural riches peopled by elite bon vivants.
And what do the French think of when they think of Germany? Beer, Berlin, cars, Nazis and war. The spontaneous associations that the French have regarding their neighbors to the east tend not to be as flattering. While Chancellor Angela Merkel led the list with 29 percent, the rest of the list was more history book than travel guide: Reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall, discipline, order, power, work and industry. At least sausage and sauerkraut made its appearance on the list of two dozen characteristics associated with Germany.
The collection of stereotypes held on either side of the French-German border is the product of a survey conducted on behalf of the German Embassy in Paris by the French public research institute IFOP. Both sides had "largely positive views" of the other. But the catalogue of clichés and prejudices showed
significant differences.Following the French-German "honeymoon" orchestrated by French leader Charles de Gaulle and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer after World War II and the ensuing half a century of friendly relations, a third of those surveyed in France are largely respectful of Germans. But only 10 percent of Germans say the same about France. On the other hand, some 65 percent of Germans say they are sympathetic to the French, where as only 26 percent of the French said the same of the Germans. Even worse, one third of the French harbor envy, mistrust, anger or even fear when it comes to Germany. Germans are seen as being arrogant.
Officially, politicians speak often of the "special relationship" between Germany and France. That, indeed, is the focus of the celebrations planned for the upcoming anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty. But economic interests have long since trumped geographical proximity or shared values.
On that score, Germany's reputation among the French has only improved in recent years. Some 91 percent of the French say that Germany has been able to maintain its position as a "major industrial power," with 86 percent saying that Germany has "expended much effort to remain competitive in the face of globalization" and has thus become a "leading power" in Europe. Almost two-thirds of French respondents say that Germany has become an example to the rest of Europe, despite their professed desire for more cooperation on labor and tax policy.
Still, the economic crisis has left its mark, and the relationship between Paris and Berlin is showing new cracks. There was much talk during the French presidential election campaign last year of the "German model," and the country has tired of it. An increasing number of people in France have come to see Germany as a rival, from 7 percent 10 years ago to 18 percent today. In the other direction, a growing percentage of Germans is concerned about economic developments in France. Indeed, people in Germany no longer see their neighbors as being a political and economic power. Even as they like to travel there for good food and the good life, France is no longer seen as a model to be emulated. A majority of Germans agreed with the statement: "Poverty and inequality has risen there in recent years."
End of its Usefulness
This year's survey also revealed a worrying discrepancy in how the two countries view their close cooperation as the key actors in the European Union. While the vast majority of people on both sides of the border see the alliance as being "important" for the EU, French and Germans disagree as to whether the cooperation is "satisfactory." Fully 85 percent of Germans view the relationship as more or less equal; in France only 59 percent agree.
IFOP Director Jérôme Fourquet warns that the divide could continue to deepen. He notes that, whereas half of those surveyed in France believe in the value of a "privileged partnership" with Germany, only a fifth of Germans agree. In just the last 24 months, the percentage of those in Germany saying that the Berlin-Paris partnership has reached the end of its usefulness has climbed from 58 percent to 71 percent.
That could, however, be a positive sign -- a sign that the French-German alliance has become just one of the many that tie Europe together.