France and Germany set the tone in the EU. But relations between Berlin and Paris have reached a low point, to the detriment of all of Europe. DW's Andreas Noll examines the difficult friendship of Hollande and Merkel.
When the French President refers to his relationship with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel these days, he tends to refer to "friendly tension." That's another way of saying German-French relations aren't at their best. After an erratic and impulsive Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande's style of governance in the Élysée-Palace has more in common with the German chancellor's style: pragmatic and sober. And yet the two leaders haven't found a common language, even if they have been on first-name terms since the beginning of the year.
Not a political walk in the park
There are many reasons for their difficult relationship. It started with the presidential election campaign when Merkel openly supported Sarkozy's re-election, a circumstance Hollande seems not to have forgotten. The socialist politician is now demonstratively supporting Peer Steinbrück, the candidate nominated to run for chancellor by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Merkel's main opponent. By doing so, Hollande makes no secret of his support for a change in Berlin's political leadership.
What is more important, though, is the shift in balance of power between the two countries within the European Union. France is currently struggling economically and as a result is politically weakened within the EU, whereas the German influence in the bloc is consistently growing. Just over a decade ago the French economy was on a par with the German economy, but now it has fallen behind. Hollande entered office amid a dramatic deindustrialization along with an unemployment rate that is higher than it has ever been in the Fifth Republic. He promised his electorate that everything would improve under his leadership. A year after his election, there are 322,000 more unemployed people than when he took office.
Many French socialist politicians blame the German-enforced policy of austerity for the euro crisis. Indeed the German chancellor has repeatedly thwarted Hollande's political initiatives, whether these concern the question of a European debt union or a new role for the European Central Bank (ECB).
Ruling a split party
One thing is clear: at the moment, Merkel neither wants a debt union nor a political ECB or a program of short-term investment. She is convinced that Germany's most important partner will only get back on its feet if broad structural reforms take place, reforms not unlike the ones that her predecessor Gerhard Schröder introduced under the name Agenda 2010. That the pragmatic socialist Hollande might have the courage for such a herculean task was not only something that Merkel was hoping for, it was also the hope of many economists in France and Germany.
One year after his election, François Hollande isn't taking any giant leaps. Instead, he relies on small steps towards reform, which he wants to develop within a social consensus, just like the German chancellor does, in fact. These steps, which include breaking apart the stagnant structure of the labor market, are progressing in the right direction. But they aren't moving fast enough for the German partners. Rainer Brüderle, the top candidate for Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP), has complained that the French Socialist government has "run down" France's economy, a statement that expresses the sentiments - if not the exact words - of many in the German political leadership.
A divided party for a divided Europe
Still, Merkel and her ministers are holding back from public criticism of the French leadership. Despite the great powers vested in the French presidential position by the constitution, the political leeway that the president now has, has sunken to a minimum. One year after he took office, Hollande has worse ratings in opinion polls than any president before him. The French perceive him as wavering and lacking in authority, a man whose politics are irresolute and contradictory. The deterioration of his authority is reflected in the media, which refers to the president mockingly as "Monsieur faible" ("Mister weak") and simultaneously emphasizes the undisputed leadership position of the German chancellor in Europe. The pressure to "perform" and to enforce a change in policy in France and in Europe is growing, especially from Hollande's own party.
The debate about the Socialist party's Convention on Europe, scheduled for mid-July, shows how high tensions are running in the French government. "The German savings chancellor is only thinking of making savings on the other side of the Rhine, of the trade balance recorded in Berlin and of the next elections," a French internal party document described the relationship. This passage has now been removed, but the anger against the chancellor's policy of austerity seems to have no bounds among some sections of the Socialist party.
Meanwhile, the party is deeply divided on economic policy. The number of people demanding more debt, more social welfare and more state control of the economy and pressuring their president to form a coalition within Europe against the powerful Germans is steadily growing. And yet the president is hesitating to cut ties to Germany and position himself as the leader of a "southern block" alongside Spain and Italy.
No thaw in sight
During a calm phase, Franco-German differences can be glossed over, but during the euro crisis the conflicts are all coming to light. As the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently reported, even on the working level there is no communication between the Chancellery and the Élysée Palace, despite the fact that a Franco-German compromise is an important prerequisite for any changes in Europe. Fears run high in the European capital cities about France falling into a long-term state of paralysis.
Merkel and Hollande are aware of these concerns and agreed at the beginning of the year that they would present a joint document on the continuation of EU integration by the end of June. This is quite an opportunity, considering that in comparison to her predecessors, Merkel is moving away from the community approach and is now fighting for the model of a Europe of national states, the model that has long been favored by France. But the joint concept they present will be rather slimmed down. Until the time of the German elections at least, Franco-German relations will stay as they are: at a standstill.