Hopes and Fears Germany Holds its Breath Over French Vote

Germans are following this year’s presidential race in France more closely than any other French election in the past, says Barbara Kunz, a German researcher at Paris think tank Ifri. Berlin hopes the next Élysée Palace occupant will be a pro-European leader committed to sharing EU leadership with Germany.
All bets are off in France’s presidential election and Germany is bracing itself for a potentially unpalatable outcome.

Not long ago, Germans saw it as a foregone conclusion that Alain Juppé, a former prime minister on the center-right, would take over from François Hollande, and that this would mean business as usual for Franco-German cooperation. Germans were even optimistic that their “tandem” with France might work even better under Juppé, since they see Hollande as too weak to get things done. But with the first round of the elections only days away, the situation could not be more different.

For a start, Juppé lost in the primaries to his much more conservative rival François Fillon. In another surprise, a radical leftist, Benoît Hamon, won the socialist primaries. On the populist fringe there is an old acquaintance to Germans, the Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen. The leading candidate of the pro-European center-left is Emmanuel Macron, a former minister who is running as an independent. And on the far left there is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a new face to German audiences who has recently gained in the polls. Suddenly, the next French president is likely to be recruited from this quartet: Macron, Le Pen, Fillon or Mélenchon.

Berlin yearns not for a weak, but for a strong partner in Paris

Most worryingly for Germans, half of this quartet -- Le Pen and Mélenchon -- is anti-EU and leading nationalist campaigns that emphasize French sovereignty and feature strong and explicit anti-German rhetoric. In these discourses Germany features as bogeyman -- for its huge trade surplus, its insistence on austerity during the euro crisis, or its alleged “domination” of the European Central Bank’s monetary policy.

Berlin is more optimistic about the other half of the quartet, hoping that either Macron or Fillon could lead to a reinvigorated France. Germany is keen to restore Franco-German leadership in Europe, perceived to be a condition sine qua non to address the growing list of problems: Brexit, the ongoing euro crisis, Russia, Syria, and now also transatlantic uncertainty caused by Donald Trump. In fact, French voters anxious about German hegemony would be surprised by the truth: Berlin yearns not for a weak, but for a strong partner in Paris, to share the burden of leadership in the EU, and to help build consensus building among the 27.

Of course Berlin also knows that even a pro-European French president does not automatically hold views compatible with German points of view. But France and Germany would at least agree that European integration is worth preserving, and would look for common approaches on that basis. And while the overall constellation may change after the German election in September, the next government in Berlin will definitely remain pro-European. In that sense, the ball is clearly in the French court.

Germans also know that for France and Germany to lead together, the imbalances between the two countries must not be too big. In recent years, however, Germany grew economically stronger, while France went in the opposite direction. France’s greater military strength cannot compensate for this economic weakness. Again contrary to what the nationalist presidential candidates in France are suggesting, Germany wants France to fix its economy and grow. While France is weak at home, Berlin feels left alone in Europe.

That’s why Germans are also hoping for the next French president to undertake structural reform. Berlin knows better than to push its own reforms passed under the government of Gerhard Schröder as a model for France. But it is encouraged that two of the leading quartet, Fillon and Macron, indeed do promise to rejuvenate the French economy without invoking protectionism and “Frenchmen first”.

That’s why Berlin, if it had a vote, would cast it for either Fillon or Macron. And between these two, Germany seems to prefer Macron. The German Social Democrats even endorsed Macron instead of Hamon, who is after all the candidate of their Socialist sister party. Even Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister and a Christian Democrat, recently declared that he would probably vote for Macron. Fillon’s various scandals put off many Germans, who tolerate these things less than the French do. Fillon’s apparent sympathy with Vladimir Putin also raises eyebrows in Berlin. Working with Macron just promises to be easier.

But even if Macron wins, difficulties lie ahead. The next French president will need a solid parliamentary majority to put his program into practice. And the parliamentary elections take place only weeks after the presidential vote. But France’s party system is in crisis: the two traditional large parties, the Socialists and Les Républicains, are torn by internal rivalries and infighting. Macron, moreover, cannot even rely on the support of any party. His movement, En Marche!, was only created last year.

Germans must realize that French differences in economic policy and defense emanate less from individual French politicians than from deeper French traditions. What allowed the Franco-German couple to overcome these differences in the past was a shared political will to find compromise. That is why Germans, like many Europeans, are praying that the French elections will reaffirm that political will in Paris.


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