Chancellor Angela Merkel was not naturally inclined to focus on Franco-German relations. "She comes from the former East Germany, and her experience was of east bloc countries, especially Russia, " says Sabine Rau, Paris bureau chief for the German public television network WRD.
"Merkel sees politics in terms of issues and efficiency, not personal relationships," Rau continues. She was baffled by Jacques Chirac's hand-kissing, annoyed by Sarkozy's aggressiveness. She may have felt intimidated by the legacy of historic friendships between past leaders: Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle; Helmet Kohl and François Mitterrand; Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.
Merkel's stubborn resistance to the Greek bailout following the 2008 financial crisis can be interpreted as a failure. Or her eventual break with German orthodoxy may be seen as a success, because it prefigured her joint initiative with French president Emmanuel Macron in creating the EU pandemic recovery fund in May 2020.
These two events, instigated by French presidents, were Merkel's finest hours, says Eric-André Martin, head of the Franco-German studies centre at the French Institute for International Relations, IFRI: "In 2008-10, as in 2020, the French and German leaders worked together to avoid major political and economic crises in Europe. "
"There was always a sort of misunderstanding between France and Germany, with Germany calling for financial discipline and France calling for solidarity," says Marion Van Renterghem, who has published two books on Merkel and is preparing a documentary about the outgoing chancellor for broadcast in October.
Van Renterghem compares France and Germany to the cicada that sings all summer while the ant is working in Jean de La Fontaine’s fable. “Germany became financially and economically strong through great effort, while France always found it difficult to manage its finances rigorously,” she says.
Despite Merkel’s distaste for soaring French rhetoric and over-ambitious proposals, “French élan pulled Germany forward,” Van Renterghem continues. “Both countries bring something positive to the relationship. At the end of the day, it’s a constructive blend, despite being fraught with internal friction.”
It is never easy. “There is not a single important issue on which we spontaneously agree,” says a high-ranking French diplomat. “That is why it is so important that we talk constantly to each other.”
Eric-André Martin calls Franco-German relations “a permanent compromise”. They agree on long-term objectives, and the fact that only the EU can solve big problems, he says. “But they differ on the means of getting there.”
Relations with Russia are a case in point. Merkel and Macron are lucid about the character of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But both believe it is better to maintain dialogue than push Russia into the arms of China. They recently tried, and failed, to organise a joint EU-Russia summit.
Merkel speaks Russian. Putin speaks German from his years as a KGB agent in the former East Germany. Merkel understands Putin better than her EU colleagues. In 2014, it was she who took the initiative for negotiations in Minsk between Putin, herself and the presidents of France and Ukraine, after Putin annexed Crimea and fanned rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"Merkel understood she had to do the Minsk negotiations with France, even though [then president] François Hollande was weak," says Rau. "She prevented a war between Russia and Nato. " French sources note that Russia never abided by the Minsk accords. The negotiations stalled and the conflict remains frozen.
The Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline has been a constant irritant between Merkel and Macron. “We never made any secret of our opposition to it,” says the French diplomat. Unlike France, Germany has renounced nuclear power. It will have to phase out coal-fired plants under the European Green Deal, so it is relying on Russian gas.
France argues that it is dangerous to give Putin a choke-hold over Germany's energy supply. "For years, Merkel has claimed the pipeline is an economic, not political, question," says the diplomat. "This is hypocritical – it is obviously political." Former US president Donald Trump also objected to the pipeline, which is almost finished, but Merkel persevered. At a summit with Joe Biden in Washington in mid-July, she finally obtained US acquiescence to completion of the pipeline.
Merkel was angry when Macron welcomed Putin to his summer residence at Brégançon in 2019, in part because Macron said Russia should be brought back into the G8 group of the world's biggest economies, from which it had been expelled over the annexation of Crimea. The French say it was important to prevent Moscow reinstalling missiles targeting Europe after Trump renounced an arms treaty with Russia. A few days later, Macron outlined his arguments for dialogue with Russia in a speech before French ambassadors.
"The Germans thought Macron had been plotting behind their backs for months," says the French diplomat. "In France, we often distinguish between political will, the political gesture, the political decision and its execution. In Germany it's the other way around. A decision is formulated only after Madam Merkel has consulted everyone, after it is discussed in the Bundestag. That is why there are no surprises. No matter how well we know each other, we always forget how the other functions. There are major institutional differences."
Macron’s election was favourably viewed in Berlin. He gained credibility by reforming the French labour code during his first months in office. But by the time he proposed 50 new initiatives to create a more sovereign, autonomous Europe in a September 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, Merkel was enmeshed in a long struggle to form a government.
"The Germans thought Macron was going too far, that he was over ambitious and did not give sufficient consideration to the US position," says Paul Maurice, a research fellow at the Franco-German centre at IFRI. "Macron's statement in the autumn of 2019 that Nato was 'brain dead' was also ill-received in Germany, because it was seen as a desire to cut Europe's ties with Nato."
Germany has long enjoyed special status as a US ally. Maurice suggests the French may have been a little jealous that Merkel was invited to Washington before Macron by president Joe Biden.
Armin Laschet, the president of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous region in Germany, is likely to succeed Merkel as chancellor. "Laschet had a Belgian grandfather. He is a Rhineland Catholic, the kind of pro-European German whom the French have always known," says Maurice. "In his interviews, Laschet praises Macron's European policies."
Since 2019, Laschet has held the culture and education portfolios in frequent Franco-German joint cabinet meetings. “He knows us well, and we know him well,” says the French diplomat. “If he becomes chancellor, we will have no difficulties.”
France considers the leaders of the German Green, Liberal and SPD parties who will participate in the coalition-making process as friends too. “We will lose someone we are used to working with,” the diplomat says. “But I think the Franco-German relationship will be even better.”
Whatever happens in German politics, Macron will become the uncontested leader of Europe with Merkel’s departure. He will hold seniority over Germany’s new chancellor, and France will assume the six-month presidency of the EU from January 1st, 2022. That could provide a valuable fillip to Macron’s re-election campaign.
Tomorrow - Part 4: The UK relationship.
Denis Staunton on British disappointment after five prime ministers misjudged Angela Merkel