Madame Non and Monsieur Duracell German-French Relations On the Rocks

For decades, the German-French relationship has been the most important one in the European Union. These days, however, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy can hardly stand each other. Why can't they just get along?


It's been said that she sometimes refers to him as the "little Napoleon." Only two years ago, he said that he liked her more than some in the press seemed to think. When he greets her, he likes to give her a little peck on her left and right cheeks. But she always presses her face a little too closely to his; the ritual is foreign to her.

Early on, German Chancellor Angela Merkel even watched old Louis de Funès films to gain a better understanding of this Frenchman, Nicolas Sarkozy, the country's exuberant, impatient president. Sarkozy is the kind of man who on a Tuesday meets with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is on hostile terms with Moscow, and sells helicopters to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on a Friday. Who is opposed to government intervention in his country's economy one day and for it the next. He has been likened to the Duracell Bunny, this politician whose batteries never seem to run empty.

From the very beginning Merkel, a Protestant with a quantum chemistry professor for a husband, and Sarkozy, the "bling-bling" president with the pop-star wife, were an extremely unlikely pair. But they respected each other, and for a long time they made an honest effort to downplay their differences. They were determined not to allow their dissimilarities to affect relations between their two countries.

But since the Greek debt crisis emerged, that effort has diminished. "The German chancellor and the French president have never been this far apart," writes the Paris daily Le Figaro. According to the weekly magazine Le Point, "nothing is working anymore in the German-French relationship." Regional newspaper Ouest-France comments that "the worst thing about it is that the malaise is no longer personal, which makes it more deep-seated."

What Germany Does Not Want

The conclusion that the differences of opinion between Germany and France were more than just a passing phenomenon, that they were deep-seated, finally became clear during the economic and currency crisis. France wants a common European economic government for the 16 euro-zone countries, complete with its own administration. And this is precisely what Germany does not want.

Merkel wants to discuss budgetary discipline and austerity measures with the French, while Sarkozy says that all of these savings plans will just exacerbate the recession. Germany is calling for chronic deficit spenders to be penalized, possibly even excluded from the euro zone. France considers this a violation of the European idea.

Sarkozy even avoids using the word rigueur, or budgetary discipline, altogether. Meanwhile, the French social insurance system alone faces a €30 billion ($36.6 billion) debt this year, and the country's budget deficit is forecast to be €156 billion. France's foreign trade declined by 17 percent in 2009.

The relationship between France and Germany is and has long been burdened by classic conflicts and controversies. In France, growth is traditionally based on consumption, while the German economy grows through exports. The French, as has long been the case, are not big on saving: The government in Paris hasn't balanced its budget in three decades.

To make matters worse, the much-touted "equilibrium of disequilibrium" (l'équilibre du déséquilibre) between the two countries has shifted. France was long a giant, politically speaking, but a dwarf economically, while the situation was reversed in Germany. Both positions shaped their relations for decades, as German chancellors set aside national interests to demonstrate their solidarity with the French partner. Merkel, however, has taken a different tone for months, marking a paradigm shift in Germany's European policy.

Historical Low

Now, in the midst of the crisis, both sides have become less willing to compromise. Indeed, the German-French relationship reached a historical low last Monday.

Merkel had invited Sarkozy to a working dinner at the Chancellery in Berlin. The agenda included preparations for the European Union meeting this Thursday, as well as the prospects of a European economic government. What happened next was not particularly dramatic, but it was enough to transform a minor change in protocol into a major international snafu within hours.

Sarkozy's motorcycle escort was already waiting in front of the Elysée Palace, and a flight carrying journalists had just arrived at the airport in Berlin, when a French diplomat announced that the planned meeting had been rescheduled. It sounded as if the Germans were responsible for the change. In a dry, two-line statement, the Elysée noted: "At the suggestion of the Chancellery, the meeting has been rescheduled for Monday, the 14th."

Technically, the statement wasn't completely incorrect, but it wasn't entirely accurate either. Nevertheless, it triggered an avalanche of indignation in France. This time "the Germans have removed the gloves and slammed the door shut," the French Internet service Mediapart promptly wrote. Others also interpreted the last-minute cancellation as a bad omen. "No one is being deceived here," the newspaper Sud-Ouest wrote, "there is a strong smell of fire between Paris and Berlin."

But what actually happened? Merkel had, in fact, suggested rescheduling the planned dinner by two hours. The Elysée, on the other hand, had already contacted German government spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm by telephone in the morning to see if the president's planned early evening meeting with the chancellor couldn't be rescheduled completely. This would give the two parties more time to prepare for the controversial issues on the agenda, the head of Sarkozy's office argued.

No Joint Position

This reasoning stemmed from Paris' fear that little would emerge from the working dinner. And with good reason: The chancellor's advisor on European policy, Uwe Corsepius, had already told the French that there would be no joint position on the question of an economic government on that day.

Because the chancellor was in a cabinet meeting in which her coalition was hammering out far-reaching spending cuts, Wilhelm was unable to reach her until midday. At that point, she seemed open to the French proposal and decided to call Sarkozy. But by early afternoon, when the two leaders had already agreed to postpone the meeting by a week, French journalists had already boarded their flight.

"I would not have been adequately prepared to have a discussion with her," Sarkozy confessed to staff members last Wednesday in Paris, saying that the embassy in Berlin had not provided him with a detailed analysis of the German savings package early enough. Besides, say employees close to the president, Sarkozy was concerned that journalists were going to ask him about French austerity measures -- a question for which he would not have had any answers.

Nevertheless, the Elysée did not correct the impression it had given earlier, namely that the chancellor had duped the president. This too says a lot about the current state of the relationship between Berlin and Paris. For days, the incident sparked outrage among diplomats and the French press, which commented: "She doesn't even have time for a meal of sauerkraut with Sarkozy."

But a statement made by former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin one day later, which was allowed to pass unchallenged, went much further. It was a sentence that sounded as if half a century of bilateral relations was now being called into question. Germany no longer trusts France, Villepin said.


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