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Shared border, shared problems

Alfred Grosser Porträt
Alfred Grosser
September 6, 2017

Neighbors France and Germany have a lot in common. That’s why each can benefit from a look across the other's border, writes guest commentator Alfred Grosser, a French-German writer and political scientist.

Macron and Merkel in Paris
Image: Reuters/C. Platiau

Franco-German relations are healthy. It's only the extremists who accuse French President Emmanuel Macron of hastening to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's side immediately after his election. Such a visit is a long-established tradition.

Many in France look toward Germany with a sense of admiration, mixed with a certain amount of envy. How do the Germans do it? That export surplus, widespread contentment, sense of social calm, and those in-the-black figures!

Here in France, there are only a few people who delve more deeply into the politics of Germany's balanced budget. Yes, there is a surplus, but why is it not being used to improve schools, roads and bridges? These are all projects where French companies could play a large role. Such measures would be not only be good for Germany, they would be also be a sign of goodwill to its partners in France!

France favors social market economy – and Germany?

What Macron is hoping to achieve in France is pretty much the definition of the German "Sozialen Marktwirtschaft," or social market economy.  Except in the Germany of today, everyone seems to be acting as though the free market economy is all that counts. As though there were complete economic liberalism – when the government, whether at the federal, state, or municipal level, is omnipresent!

Alfred Grosser
German-born French writer and political scientist Alfred GrosserImage: picture-alliance/dpa

France is regularly accused by its neighbors in Germany of allowing the state to interfere in the free economy. But look at what happens in Germany! When Air Berlin declares bankruptcy, the German state rushes in with a bridging loan to the tune of 150 million euros ($179 million). What's worse, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper from July 12 ran an article under the headline "Takeover protection for German companies" stating: "The federal government wants to prevent foreign investors from buying up strategically important companies. To that end, the government will in future have the right to veto deals." But if the French government tries to do something similar (as it did recently in a clumsy manner with the ship-building industry) then Germany heaps criticism on Paris.

The French industrial sector is doing poorly. The August 12 edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine carried the headline "The death of industry" – but it was referring to German industry. Why is the Dow Jones index constantly climbing? Not because of those sectors US President Donald Trump is hoping to save – steel, coal, cars. But rather, because of Silicon Valley and its non-industrial gigantic corporations.

'Monsieur Hartz' – Macron's reformer

The demographic blues

When it comes down to it, Germany and France have the same problems. It may be that in Germany, the government was quicker to recognize that it needed to raise the retirement age. It used to be that people had a life expectancy of around 75 – now we're having to take care of hundreds of thousands of 90-year-olds, and soon we're likely to see an increase in the number of people reaching the age of 100. And when it comes to child poverty, Germany is even worse off than France, and that's a topic that is not being dealt with honestly in this German election campaign.

There are also very few people in Germany who know that all French citizens carry a "Carte Vitale" that they can show in a public hospital in order to be treated free of cost, and which also guarantees them free prescription medicine. That is one of the big causes for the French budget deficit.

Merging of right and left

The grand coalition continues to astound people in France. Is there no division anymore between right and left? Is everyone in Germany now a social democrat, including the chancellor (and not just in the eyes of her CDU's more conservative Bavarian sister party, the CSU)?  But on the other hand, what is Macron, if not the embodiment of this bridged gap? He, too, is both left and right at the same time.

France expects and also hopes that Merkel will win the upcoming election and remain in office. The person to be pitied is her poor rival, Martin Schulz, who has to fight against a government of which his own party is a part.

Merkel is making few election promises, and no one knows what goals she's set herself for the next legislative period. On the other hand, France is currently experiencing growing disappointment in Macron, because he's not been immediately able to implement the grand plans announced during his campaign.

That's why an effort to look across the border and understand the situation in the neighboring country would be enormously useful, both for Germany and for France.