German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are "in agreement in their assessment of the current refugee situation." That was the word from the Chancellor's office in Berlin on Monday following the announcement that Germany would be reinstating border controls. Officially, Hollande is also in agreement with Merkel's stance on quotas for the EU-wide distribution of refugees.
Yet, real generosity from France is still lacking, at least in the eyes of German politicians. "France is taking in as many refugees as we are in the district of Allgäu," Horst Seehofer, the Christian Social Union (CSU) state premier of Bavaria, told the daily Passauer Neuen Presse. "That is selfish. When things get tough, there is no solidarity in Europe any more." French officials have said they would take in up to 24,000 refugees this year; Germany is expecting to take in 800,000 – Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is even figuring on a million.
But the criticism goes both ways. French politicians, from the right as well as the left, are baffled by Merkel's open-door policy. "The generosity of the German people is laudable, but Merkel made a huge political mistake when she put out her unilateral siren call to refugees," Socialist Malek Bouith, himself the son of Algerian immigrants, said earlier this week on French television. "Mrs. Merkel's behavior is starting crises for Germany's neighbors - first and foremost France." He went on to say that her actions have "made her an ally of Marine Le Pen." Predictably, Le Pen, the head of the extreme right-wing party Front National, is pandering to the worst fears of the French people.
The Republicans, the rebranded conservative UMP of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, are also shaking their heads about Merkel. That is a rather grave fact as the Republicans are essentially a French version of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and have close ties to the German Union parties. Pierre Lellouche, the Republicans' foreign policy speaker of the party, recently spoke about Merkel with the German public radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk: "She expedited the crisis, which has now gotten out of control." He, too, spoke of a "siren call to the millions."
Sarkozy - who may well stand in the next French Presidential elections, and who during his time as head of state worked closely with Merkel - has warned that a continuing influx of refugees could "dissolve French society." He is also against quota rules. In June, Sarkozy said acceptance quotas were the political equivalent of a plumber trying to distribute water more efficiently in an apartment after a pipe burst, rather than stopping the flow.
Last week, former conservative minister Patrick Devedjian, who is of Armenian descent, offered a statement even more abstruse when he said: "The Germans took our Jews and gave us Arabs." He later excused himself for the "misplaced joke."
It was clear from the start that Germany's refugee policy would be a golden opportunity for Marine Le Pen. "I accuse the German chancellor of burdening all of Europe with illegal immigrants after she already burdened it with her financial order," Le Pen said, deftly touching upon two sore spots for the French people. And the sentence "We are not Mrs. Merkel's doormat!" can easily be understood as a jab at Hollande, whom Le Pen sees as being all too willing to follow the chancellor's lead.
France's immigration experience
It is not just French politicians who think differently than Germans when it comes to the refugee debate. French society does as well. According to a recent poll, about 50 percent of those questioned said they did not want to take in any more refugees. And over 60 percent said asylum applications from Syria should be handled "like everybody else" - exactly the opposite of the "culture of welcoming" that is being propagated by all of the German parties represented in parliament.
But where do these differences come from? Professor Frank Baasner, head of the German-French Institute (Deutsch-Französisches Institut, DFI) in Ludwigsburg, Germany, told DW that "the demographic situation is completely different in France than it is in Germany," and "there are no solidly established far-right parties" like the Front National here.
Experiences with immigration "have not been all that happy" in France either. But, as a rule, one need not predict similar immigration problems for Germany, which does not have to deal with the "colonial background" that France has. Baasner said France also had the "illusion" that the country could somehow stabilize the Maghreb and sub-Saharan states with special African policies and that the "historical wounds" that France came away from that experience with have never really healed. In contrast, Germany has, not lastly through reunification, exhibited a "great amount of adaptability - economically, mentally and psychologically." That also applies to immigration and has had a "dynamic" affect on German society.
If differences remain and neither side can approach the other, it could have dire consequences. Some French politicians are already blaming Angela Merkel for Marine Le Pen's rise in popularity.
But Baasner believes that France and Germany will eventually come to consensus on the subject, much as they did over Greece's debt. At a certain point, European politicians realize that "we all share this problem." The pressure to act is certainly there. However, shared "political will" and "foresight" have to come as well. Right now, he said, "both are missing."