Chancellor Merkel and her foreign minister have paid a first visit to France's President Hollande. French Socialists look forward to working with German Social Democrats, says political scientist Claire Demesmay.
DW: The chancellor is still the same, but the coalition partner has changed: following the elections in September, the Social Democratic Party is now part of the German government. What does that mean for Franco-German relations?
Claire Demesmay: First of all, we now have quite a comfortable time-frame: we have until 2017, both in Germany and in France, before there will be another team change, another election. That's a long time in bilateral relations and in international politics. It gives a platform to more long-term thinking.
And what about the Social Democrats (SPD) in the new government?
The grand coalition, with SPD personalities in the government, is perceived very positively in France. And expectations are high, of course. It could make compromising easier, for example in economic policies, but also in foreign affairs.
Do you think the relationship between the countries will improve now, compared to the previous German government that had Angela Merkel governing with the market-liberal FDP?
People mustn't expect a 180-degree change, especially in economic and financial policy. And that has been one major issue between Germany and France for years: In France, the entire economic system is built on domestic demand; in Germany, export has always been important. Politicians just consider different things when making decisions. So the two countries have differences, and these differences are not bound by party-lines. The sole fact that the Social Democrats are now part of the government in Germany is thus not enough to completely put all differences aside. I'm saying that because expectations in France are so high that they need to be put into perspective.
Another point is that the economic situation in France is very different from that in Germany. France is in crisis-mode and has a big problem with its companies' competitive ability as well as with youth unemployment. Germany doesn't have these problems. That makes it difficult to find common policies that are acceptable for both sides.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has replaced Guido Westerwelle (FDP) as foreign minister, Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has taken over the defense ministry from Thomas de Maiziere. How do these personnel changes influence the relationship between France and Germany?
Both of them, von der Leyen and Steinmeier, are very open to German-French cooperation. Von der Leyen is Francophile and has worked together closely with the French government in the past. When Steinmeier was foreign minister before [from 2005 to 2009] he made a point of nurturing contacts with France, or rather with the Socialists. So there's really a lot of interest to work together. And I expect this interest to lead to a certain dynamic that leaves more room for cooperation.
Understanding the other country is also really important. It's an essential element in bilateral relations – knowing what makes your partner tick. I believe both von der Leyen and Steinmeier get that.
What are some expectations on the French side concerning Germany's EU policies?
The banking union has been a big issue over the last months. The expectation here is that Germany will be taking steps towards finalizing the banking union as quickly as possible. The French are hoping for more accommodation, more flexibility and for more suggestions instead of just reactions from Germany.
Which points in the coalition agreement between Angela Merkel's CDU and the SPD were especially well received in France?
Minimum wage and the lowering of the pension age to 63 were the questions that the French followed with great interest. The introduction of a minimum wage was especially well-received. I'm not sure the French have really understood all of it, for example that it won't be introduced until 2017, or that it's not more than 8.50 euros an hour. But it's an important signal to the French that the German government will become more Social-Democratic in the coming years. They see it not only as a guidepost for German domestic policies, but also for German EU policies. They're hoping that Germany will show more compassion toward the social problems in the EU, like for example the high youth unemployment in the southern EU countries.
Claire Demesmay is a political scientist and an expert on Franco-German relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.