Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl allegedly liked to repeat, and to follow, the advice Konrad Adenauer used to give German politicians: Whenever you find yourself on a red carpet, always bow three times to the French tricolor before even once nodding to Germany’s black, red and gold. Apocryphal or not, such anecdotes explain why Germans are this weekend looking with suspense and trembling across the Rhine to France, as La Grande Nation chooses its next president.
For no country is as important to Germany as France, as Jean-Michel Hauteville, one of our editors, explains in this primer on the bilateral friendship. The one possible exception (sorry Britain, sorry Poland) is America, Germany’s postwar re-educator and Cold-War protector. But since the election of Donald Trump, Germans are no longer sure whether this transatlantic partnership can endure. By contrast, they view the Franco-German “tandem” or “engine” as the motor that powers the European project of peaceful integration in defiance of past hostility. If this engine sputters, the European Union is in effect dead.
The EU’s demise is in fact one -- albeit unlikely -- scenario on Sunday. Should victory go to Marine Le Pen of the Front National, France’s far-right populist party, she would pull France out of the euro and hold a referendum on EU membership. You recall how that went in Britain. Anti-immigrant, anti-German, and anti-European (though suspiciously pro-Putin), Ms. Le Pen wants to close France off to the world in search of some long-lost idyll of authentic Frenchness. Germany’s worst fear this weekend is that -- owing to low turnout, perhaps -- she could defy the odds and in a last-minute upset become president.
If that is their fear, the Germans’ hope is of course the likelier outcome, in the form of a President Emmanuel Macron. A strong and united Europe co-led by France and Germany in some semblance of harmony is at the core of Germany’s own national self-interest. That is why Germany will go a long way in helping the independent and centrist Macron succeed as president, as Daniela Schwarzer of the German Council on Foreign Relations explains. And yes, that even implies some German softening where Germany and France have clashed most: in economic policy, where German “stability” and French “solidarity” have become rival catchphrases for very different worldviews.
But even this German support may not suffice to make Macron a long-term success and France a reformed and strong economy, as Jean-Michel Hauteville argues. For France has become so polarized that it is all but ungovernable. Worse, Mr. Macron, who has turned his back on the established political parties, is likely to become a lame duck within a month of taking office, as parliamentary elections in June leave him without support in that chamber. In one plausible scenario, Macron stumbles through five years in the Élysée Palace as France continues to languish economically next to a German Obelix economy, and French voters grow ever more alienated from Europe and Germany. Then the next election comes around. And Ms. Le Pen has her day after all.