The Future Of The Franco-German Couple

CollignonThe celebrations of 50 years Franco-German reconciliation are behind us and maybe the most impressive fact they revealed was how “normal” these relations have become. De Gaulle re-accredited the “great German nation” after the war, Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d’Estaing laid the foundations for Europe’s Monetary Union, Mitterrand and Kohl implemented it, but all Germany’s “Mutti Chancellor” Merkel and France’s “Normal President” Hollande can do to celebrate is to call each other du and tu. Maybe such banality is a good thing. But with European integration in its deepest crisis since its beginning and with British rats already thinking of leaving the ship, the world would have deserved some bolder initiatives coming from the Franco-German couple.

But what could the new agenda for the continent’s most powerful nations be? Hasn’t the job been done? War between the former “hereditary enemies” has become unthinkable. France and Germany are the motor of the European Union and the euro exists largely because they wanted it. Moreover, while governments scheme and intrigue (by definition), ordinary French and German people love each other: nearly 80% of the people in each country like their neighbours across the Rhine. The French admire German thoroughness, discipline, and industriousness, the Germans dream of French savoir-vivre, creativity and seductiveness.[1] However, these clichés sometimes forget the very rational and methodological management styles in French enterprises and public administration or the 249 restaurants with one and more Michelin stars that reflect the recent changes in German high cuisine (France has 656 star restaurants).[2]

Given this solid background of entente, a realistic sense of rivalry may also be a sign of normality. Each country wants to excel. And each of them does, although in different fields. German industry is a global reference, but the French health system ranks no 1 in the world while the German is only at 25th position.[3] Other French public services are generally of a similar quality. Germany’ industrial strength is generated by many medium-to large companies and a few big corporations, France’s economy is driven by large and sometimes state-owned companies and relatively fewer small and medium companies. From a demographic point of view, Germany needs to take care of a rapidly aging population, France must create jobs for the young entering the labour market.

No doubt, France and Germany are different, but also undoubtedly the cultures in the two countries have converged dramatically. 50 years ago, France was largely an agricultural economy, Germany already an industrial power. French agriculture contributed 12.5% to total value added at the time, Germany’s only 5.8%. Today, agriculture is still politically important in France (and in Germany in Bavaria for the matter), but economically it contributes only 1.5% to value added. Industry has shrunk in both economies (from 27.8% to 13% in France and from 40.1% to 23.3% in Germany), while both economies are now dominated by services (79% versus 71.5% respectively).[4] This convergence is the foundation on which the political cooperation of the Franco-German couple in the European Union is built.

What is missing today is a similar convergence in the general political philosophy. Germany’s dominant ideology is still ordoliberalism: a strong state to guarantee functioning institutions, but no interference with the market; hence, also no Keynesian demand management, but structural reforms to improve the supply side. In France the economic policy consensus is more “international” and has absorbed the lessons from successes and failures of Keynesianism, while supply side policies are focused on preserving and defending the status quo. However, in both countries prevails an attitude that economic policy is a national task and governments are there to defend the national interest.

However, the euro crisis has proven that this chauvinistic attitude is pushing Europe into the abyss. Merkel’s narrow rigidity and her refusal to assume the responsibilities of the largest economy have been a major force in the unfolding of the euro crisis.[5] Sarkozy’s desire to run Europe by a directoire (which ended up with Merkel in charge) has prevented Europe from becoming more democratic and therefore more acceptable for ordinary citizens. By putting the unelected troika in charge of economic policy in southern member states, the Franco-German couple infernal has maximised the rejection of “Europe” as a policy tool. Even if he wanted, Francois Hollande has difficulties to change the track.

There is an alternative. I call it the republican paradigm. It implies recognising that politics is about public goods. Public goods are defined by their externalities, which is why they need a government to be efficiently administrated. Over the last 50 years, the European Union has generated a large set of European public goods, which have externalities that affect people everywhere in the Union. The euro is, of course, the most important of all European public goods, for money affects the economy in its very core. Sovereignist policies increase the negative externalities of national policies for all European citizens, as the Euro crisis has made plainly clear. The proper way to deal with them is to set up a European government that is responsible for all these European public goods – but only for these. Such a government can and must be controlled by proper democratic procedures, so that citizens have a choice over the policies. In other words, instead of the troika imposing austerity, democratic institutions and elections would offer citizens a choice of how to deal with the crisis. I call this the European Republic because contrary to the confused ideology of federalism it clearly focuses on competences for one political domain only: public goods owned by all European citizens who are affected by them.

France and Germany could play an important role in changing the political philosophy in Europe. As Valery Giscard d’Estaing once said, when the two countries agree, they cover the essential of political interests, philosophies and cultural traditions in Europe. France has a long and exemplary tradition of republicanism and it should bring this inheritance into the institutional debate in Europe. But it must understand, that contrary to the principle in the French constitution “the Republic can be one and divisible”[6], namely with separate government levels for different public goods. On the other hand, the Bundesrepublik is a federative republic, where the dominance of partial Länder interests has become a permanent source of gridlock blocking efficient government in Germany and Europe. Thus, Germans have to learn that the European Republic is first of all a republic and only then an assembly of communitarian identities.

The European Republic could therefore be an exciting new project for the Franco-German couple. It requires to go beyond the status quo and to open our minds.

Vive la République européenne!


  1. Dani says

    “…..Thus, Germans have to learn that the European Republic is first of all a republic and only then an assembly of communitarian identities.”


    I and most Germans (and many other millions of Europeans) respectfully disagree.
    For us the future Europe is a federation, not a centralist superstate aka republic.
    The communitarian identities need to be a strong and independent….only that guarantees
    freedom, diversity and democracy.