France and Germany seek to mend bridges

Improved relations credited to SPD presence in coalition and shift in Hollande’s policy

After stagnating for the first 18 months of François Hollande’s presidency, Franco-German relations seemed to blossom at the annual Franco-German council of ministers in Paris on Wednesday.

Max Maldacker, the spokesman for the German embassy, traced what he called "a new start" to Hollande's press conference last month, when the French leader advocated closer co-operation with Germany in energy, fiscal, foreign and security policy.

The advent of Germany’s new coalition government in mid-December is at least as important. Hollande feels more at ease with his allies in the socialist SPD in office.

In contrast to earlier joint press conferences, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hollande were cheerful and relaxed. They joked about having to sit because Merkel is still recovering from a ski accident. She expressed pleasure at Hollande's invitation to join D-Day commemorations in Normandy next June.


After mentioning that French and German foreign and defence ministers have planned several journeys together, Merkel provoked laughter by looking at Hollande and saying, "François, where are we going together?" That's as light-hearted as Franco-German relations ever get.

Hollande’s tardy admission on January 14th that he is a social democrat reassured the SPD. His new emphasis on competitiveness to foster employment is music to German ears. At the same time, Germany is fulfilling a longstanding French demand by establishing a national minimum wage.

Key cabinet position
The SPD occupies several key cabinet positions, including foreign affairs, economy and energy and the European affairs portfolio.

The socialist foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has established good relations with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius – all the more fortuitous because Fabius did not get along with Steinmeier's predecessor, Guido Westerwelle.

At a recent briefing for German journalists in Paris, Steinmeier explained that France and Germany have agreed on a sort of criss-cross educational exchange based on historic experience.

The German minister will teach Fabius about eastern Europe – hence their journey in early March to Georgia and Moldova – while the French will teach the Germans about Africa.

A journey to Libya and Mali, either for the Fabius-Steinmeier tandem or the defence ministers, Ursula von der Leyen and Jean-Yves Le Drian, is in the early stages of planning.

Berlin has begun to respond to criticism, including from Hollande and Barack Obama last week, that it is not shouldering its share of the burden for international peace and security.

"Germany is too big to simply stand back and comment on the affairs of the world," Steinmeier told the Suddeutsche Zeitung on January 30th, a comment echoed by von der Leyen and President Joachim Gauck at the Munich security conference the following day.

The announcement in Paris that a 250-strong Franco-German brigade will be deployed in Mali this spring was the first sign of Germany’s new burdensharing, which the French see as a counterpoint to the reclusive, anti-European mood in Britain.

'Robin Hood' tax
France and Germany promised to reach agreement on the financial transaction or "Robin Hood" tax before European elections in May.

They intend to harmonise their corporate tax, which will enable them to demand the same of other EU countries, including Ireland.

Hollande had compared his pet project for close Franco-German co-operation on energy policy to the successful Airbus company.

The plan to jointly develop renewable energy is evocative of 63 years ago, when nascent Europe created a common market for coal and steel to neutralise competition over natural resources.

Measures advocated by Merkel and Hollande are likely to form the basis for future Europe-wide policies.

At this week’s summit, says the French radio commentator Bernard Guetta, “France and Germany undertook to re-start European construction”.