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Not just politics: The Macrons come to Germany

May 26, 2024

In the midst of political tensions between Berlin and Paris, the French president and his wife hope to strengthen Franco-German relations during their upcoming state visit — despite differences over key political issues.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron pictured in London, England in 2023.
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron's trip marks the first state visit by a French president since 2000Image: Ben Stansall/AP Photo/picture alliance

The last state visit by a French president to Germany was by Jaques Chirac in 2000. That is a very long time ago considering the two countries harbor such close ties. But the long break has no political significance. After all, the heads of government and ministers of both countries meet regularly every few months.

During a state visit, the focus is not on politics, but on meeting the country and its people. The host is not Chancellor Olaf Scholz, but the President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In addition to Berlin, the presidential couple's trip will also include stops in the cities of Dresden and Münster. In Münster, Macron is to be awarded the International Peace of Westphalia Prize, awarded to "one outstanding individual, who is committed to unity and peace in Federal Europe."

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron were actually supposed to come to Germany last July, but the president canceled due to unrest in France. Not that things are much calmer for Macron now: The European elections are just around the corner and, according to polls, Marine Le Pen's right-wing populist National Rally (Rassemblement National) is likely to become the strongest party in France.

In addition, a survey for the Eurobarometer in February showed a clear EU fatigue among the French. According to the survey, the European Parliament, for example, is held in the lowest esteem of all 27 EU nations in France — in the very country where the Parliament meets and which, together with Germany, is considered the driving force behind the EU.

Macron: 'Europe can die'

"Our Europe can die": with these provocative words, which were simultaneously translated into German, Macron called for more sovereignty and more common defense for Europe at the Sorbonne University in Paris a month ago.

Olaf Scholz und Emmanuel Macron in Weimar.
Macron and Scholz differ on key political issues such as nuclear power and troops on the ground in UkraineImage: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/picture alliance

This is not the first time that Macron has outlined grand visions for Europe. He sang a similar tune in 2017 when he called for a European finance ministry. Back then, he was rebuffed by then Christian Democrat (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel . This time, Olaf Scholz praised the speech's "good impetus" for Europe on X, but failed to provide any concrete answers.

This is also a question of different mentalities, according to Marc Ringel, director of the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg. "Visions" are "a very French way of explaining the view of things that you wouldn't find in Germany," he told DW. "Helmut Schmidt once said: 'If you have visions, go to the doctor. I think that's the sober German way of putting it."

German loyalty to the alliance, French autonomy

However, there are also currently clear political differences on many issues: Paris is committed to nuclear power, while Berlin shut down the last nuclear reactors in the country. Macron has not ruled out ground troops in the Ukraine war, while Scholz rejects the notion. Plans for a Franco-German battle tank and combat aircraft are making slow progress. Macron wants Germany to commission European, not least French, companies for its armaments plans, while Germany is happy to buy from the Americans.

Macron calls for European defense strategy: DW's Lisa Louis

"Defense has always been a contentious topic between Germany and France because we have different security cultures," said Ringel. "On the German side, we are very closely aligned with NATO." On the other hand, there is "the strategic autonomy that France claims for itself."

Scholz in French, Macron in German

Franco-German relations are worse than they have been for decades, Friedrich Merz, leader of the main opposition party Christian Democrats (CDU), complained recently. Merz also spoke of a "rift" between Scholz and Macron on the issue of support for Ukraine. 

However, Scholz and Macron at least want to show the outside world that they understand each other. In a short video published on X, they even did so in each other's languages: Macron read out a question from a citizen who wanted to know whether the Franco-German partnership is still important. Scholz answered in French: "Hello, dear friends, I confirm, long live Franco-German friendship!" To which Macron responded in German: "Thank you, Olaf, I very much agree with you."

Lively youth exchange

But what about the Franco-German friendship between the people of the two countries, beyond vacations and red wine? Ringel cited a study conducted by Infratest in March: "It shows that Germans' approval of France as a diplomatic partner remains high. Over 80% of Germans say that France is a reliable partner, far more approval than for any of our other partners. That's also mirrored in France."

However, learning the neighbor's language is declining on both sides of the Rhine. Former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing is reported to have once said with resignation: "On s'arrange avec l'anglais" ("One gets by with English"). English as a lingua franca is one thing, said Ringel. But the decline in language learning could also represent a normalization of relationships: "People respect each other, but the other person has become so familiar that they perhaps make a little less effort."

In any case, the director of the Franco-German Institute is not particularly concerned about the issue of exchanges between young French and German people: "It's not just school exchanges. There are also opportunities to do internships, for example with the French Voluntary Service. There are lots of opportunities to take part in these exchanges and they are very popular."

This article was originally written in German.

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