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Europe

Berlin and Paris strive for common ground amid signs of strain

While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy presented a united front on stricter regulation for derivatives trading on Wednesday, Franco-German relations have been difficult of late.

Merkel and Sarkozy

Germany and France lead the way in Europe

The French were not amused when German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday cancelled a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the last minute, citing a hectic schedule and without offering an apology.

The media, which had already arrived in Berlin for the event, had a field day declaring a new fundamental rift between Paris and Berlin. French daily Le Monde accused Germany of acting against the interests of the EU and left-leaning daily Liberation claimed Merkel was dreaming of a "Holy German Empire of the Euro."

Symbolism versus pragmatism

While both governments have denied a rift, the incident shows the fundamental differences in policy and culture between the two European powerhouses, whose relationship is so vital for EU politics.

"The French are very attached to symbols," Henrik Uterwedde, deputy director at the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg, told Deutsche Welle.

Merkel

Merkel lacks that French flair for political symbolism

"The Germans are very pragmatic and often do not see the political value of symbols for the French partner, and that leads to misunderstandings. To say to the French president at three o' clock, well you have to cancel your flight to Berlin - it's just not done in France," he explains.

To the French, Merkel represents that German pragmatism so lacking in subtlety, Uterwedde says. When Merkel was invited for the Armistice Day celebrations in France last November, she was the first German chancellor to accept the invitation, but there was a feeling in France that she did not do the occasion justice.

Economic policy differences

Meanwhile, Berlin simply claims Merkel had too much on her plate on Monday - the day the German government's austerity program was officially presented.

Germany's handling of the global financial crisis is another thorn in France's side. France wants to establish an "economic government" to better coordinate EU policy, a proposal that makes German politicians nervous.

"They fear that the French, who don't really like the independence of the European Central Bank (ECB) nor its commitment to stability policies, could establish a political institution that could take advantage of the ECB and its focus on stability," Uterwedder explains.

Euro sign at the ECB

For the German government, the ECB is the bastion of stability

Nor do the French rate Germany's latest austerity package very highly. Like the United States, Paris believes in stimulating the economy to counteract weak growth induced by the global financial crisis.

The French minister in charge of kick-starting the economy, Patrick Devedjian, said in a recent television interview that France will not emulate Germany and that drastic savings measures like those adopted by Berlin would "damage the French economy, because they could stifle growth."

Earlier in the year, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde had complained about Germany's focus on exports for growth, saying that Germans need to do more to boost domestic demand. Meanwhile, in stark opposition, Germany continues to press fellow eurozone countries to exercise fiscal restraint and balance their budgets.

A strong friendship

But some in France understand the German position and call on leaders to work with their differences to boost Franco-German relations, so that the EU can speak with one voice on the global stage.

Merkel and Sarkozy in embrace

Germany and France have a strong friendship despite their differences

"The Germans do not want to be the cash cow of Europe, that hasn't changed since Helmut Kohl was in power," says former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine.

"We shouldn't be debating that over and over again. And that is also the reason for the German position on the Greek aid package. It's about time we acknowledged that Germany and France never have the same position to start with, we could save a lot of time," he added.

So, Paris and Berlin can take heart from history. Relations between France and Germany will always be marred by fundamental differences, but "this is part of European unification," Uterwedde told Deutsche Welle.

"It's not the differences that count, it's the capacity to overcome differences by compromise. They [France and Germany] should show European leadership. If France and Germany with their sometimes very opposite views are capable of compromise, the other partners will be capable too," he explains.

Author: Nicole Goebel
Editor: Andreas Illmer

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