As France's presidential election draws near, the candidates are beginning to flock to Berlin, an obligatory stop to pay homage to the French-German relationship. But perhaps like the alliance itself, which has been strained by terrorism, refugees and Brexit, the partners are uneasy and wary.
German government officials were quick this month to welcome François Fillon, the leading conservative, and Emmanuel Macron the Socialist-turned-independent, keenly aware either could end up leading Germany's biggest European partner after two rounds of voting end in May.
But unlike in previous elections, both the French and Germans don't seem to be as comfortable with each other as in the past. The French hopefuls are newly assertive, taking pains to outline differences with the Germans on the future of Europe, wary of being overlooked in Germany's shadow.
While trumpeting the Paris-Berlin connection, Mr. Fillon and Mr. Macron were less effusive in praising Germany's economic model than before. Both want to avoid the mistake made by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, when he enthusiastically lauded the German model in Berlin, angering French voters. The gaffe played a role in Mr. Sarkozy's loss to François Hollande.
This time the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is also wary of picking the wrong candidate. After endorsing Mr. Sarkozy during the 2012 election campaign, her relationship with Mr. Hollande got off on the wrong foot.
Which is why Ms. Merkel on Monday warmly welcomed, but did not endorse, Mr. Fillon, Mr. Sarkozy's former prime minister, during his visit to Berlin. The French conservative did get the royal treatment in Berlin from Ms. Merkel's conservative cabinet: Both Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen took time to meet with him.
There is no alternative to a very strong French-German cooperation. Not for romantic or historical reasons – that’s the past –, but to build our future François Fillon, Les Républicains conservative party's presidential nominee
Politically, the German ministers are aligned most closely with Mr. Fillon’s Les Républicains party, the successor to France's UMP party. Mr. Fillon, a devout Catholic career politician, upset two heavyweights, Mr. Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, another former prime minister, to win the nomination in November.
In Berlin, Mr. Schäuble heaped praise on Mr. Fillon's reform plans, which would slash social spending, the ranks of civil servants and roll back costly labor market reforms like the 35-hour work week. While calling his proposals “highly plausible” and “serious,” Mr. Schäuble and Ms. Merkel were restrained in their public comments, and stopped short of endorsing his program.
Mr. Fillon, on the other hand, was not bound by the same imperatives. After a one-hour lunch with Ms. Merkel on Monday, he told journalists that their meeting centered on strengthening Europe in the face of mounting geopolitical pressures and the onset of the Donald Trump era in the United States.
“We consider that there is no alternative to a very strong French-German cooperation. Not for romantic or historical reasons – that’s the past – but to build our future,” he said. Mr. Fillon described France and Germany as the “two strongest economies in Europe,” which needed to defend the European Union against “American, Russian or Chinese” interests.
Mr. Fillon was France's prime minister from 2007 to 2012 and is no stranger to Berlin. But this time, while stressing common interests, Mr. Fillon underscored his differences with Ms. Merkel on the refugees, the economy and Russia, where he is more open to cooperative solutions. The contrasts he outlined were calculated and reflect growing unease in Paris that the relationship with Germany had become too one-sided.
“It’s clear that Germany has taken leadership on the economy, in the European Parliament, and so on. We can’t stay in this situation if we want to build Europe,” said a person close to Mr. Fillon, who declined to be identified, according to Reuters. “Fillon wants to have an equal partnership with Germany, but obviously we have a long way to go.”
Some CDU politicians certainly feel closer to Macron than to Fillon, who is on many aspects far more conservative than Merkel Claire Demesmay, Political expert, German Council on Foreign Relations
The comments were a stark contrast to the adulation Ms. Merkel had five years ago in France for her reputation as the level-headed leader who had helped Germany weather the worst of the global financial crisis. Back then, candidates like Mr. Sarkozy sought her backing to win votes at home, even if it didn't help him win a second term.
But public opinion in France over Germany has cooled since then, and many voters are now alienated by Mr. Schäuble’s uncompromising attitude towards crisis-ridden Greece in the debt talks, and especially by Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy towards asylum seekers.
“Germany is not at all a big topic in the campaign in France this year,” Claire Demesmay, a specialist in Franco-German cooperation at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said.
In 2012, Ms. Demesmay said, French presidential contenders "obsessed about Germany,'' and were divided into camps that either swore by the "German model'' or rejected it.
This year, the visits by the French candidates to Berlin have been a low-key affair.
The first candidate to come to the German capital was Mr. Macron, the former investment banker and minister for economic affairs in Mr. Hollande’s cabinet who is campaigning as a centrist independent.
Over two days in early January, Mr. Macron met with French voters in Berlin, visited refugees at a Deutsche Bahn job-training program, and held informal meetings with Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Martin Schulz, the former president of the European parliament and likely Social Democrat challenger to Ms. Merkel in national elections this September.
Mr. Macron wanted to meet with the German vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, his counterpart as economics minister. But the two never met, apparently because of conflicting schedules. Mr. Gabriel, who on Tuesday withdrew as vice chancellor and SPD chairman to become Germany's foreign minister, may have had other reasons for avoiding the meeting.
On paper, Mr. Gabriel's SPD is philosophically aligned with France's Socialist Party, which on Sunday will probably nominate Benoît Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist lawmaker who advocates unconditional basic income, a higher minimum wage and redistribution of wealth to the poor, to be its presidential candidate.
Mr. Macron is more pro-European than Mr. Hamon and unapologetically champions taking in migrants in Europe. Just before traveling to Berlin, he told German media Ms. Merkel’s asylum policy had “saved Europe’s soul.”
But France's Socialists are more leftist than Germany's SPD, and relations between the partisan cousins could be strained, no matter who wins. Mr. Macron, a charismatic former investment banker for Rothschild's whose moderate views prompted him to create a new more mainstream French political organization, may be more attractive to SPD sympathizers than Mr. Hamon.
Center-right politicians in Germany are also “intrigued” by Mr. Macron's refreshing brand of centrist politics, said the DGAP analyst, Ms. Demesmay. “Some CDU politicians certainly feel closer to Macron than to Fillon, who is on many aspects far more conservative than Merkel,” she said.
But Mr. Macron's party is very new -- it was created less than a year ago in April 2016 -- and his bid for the Elysee Palace may suffer because it is perceived as too independent and too ideologically non-partisan.
“For the CDU, Macron is an attractive candidate, but the CDU is a party while Macron’s campaign is all about non-partisan politics, so the CDU has a problem with that,” Ms. Demesmay told Handelsblatt Global.
So Mr. Fillon is the Christian Democrats’ favorite candidate. Not all CDU politicians are coy about it. “We hope that today we are receiving the future French president,” Ms. Merkel’s chief-of-staff, Peter Altmaier, told the conservative nominee at a conference at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation on Monday evening. “And we hope you will return as President as soon as possible,” Mr. Altmaier further complimented.
I hope Ms. Le Pen will never become France’s President Wolfgang Schäuble, German Finance Minister
But differences among rival French conservatives and Socialists pale compared to Berlin’s deepest fear: A victory by France's right-wing Front National, which has blamed Germany for much of the country's economic woes.
The candidate and chairwoman Marine Le Pen is polling high and almost certain to make it into the second round of French elections.
In a survey last week, she had 26 percent support, overtaking Mr. Fillon for the first time since he won the nomination. The center-right contender, whose lead had eroded over the weeks since becoming the standardbearer, trailed at 24 percent.
Mr. Macron, once dismissed as a long-shot, is gaining ground and could win 20 percent in first-round voting, potentially putting him in position to challenge frontrunners Mr. Fillon and Ms. Le Pen and make it into the decisive run-off on May 7. All potential Socialist candidates -- suffering in the wake of the unpopular Mr. Hollande's tenure -- are polling far behind the other candidates.
Spurned by both German establishment conservatives and Social Democrats, Ms. Le Pen came to Germany anyway over the weekend to speak to a meeting of European populist parties organized by far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Koblenz. Ms. Le Pen appeared with the AfD leader, Frauke Petry, for the first time in public.
It’s unlikely that Ms. Le Pen, who says she wants to take France out of the euro currency, which she says serves German but not French interests, will be invited to Berlin any time soon by Ms. Merkel.
Recently, Mr. Schäuble was blunt in his rejection of Ms. Le Pen.
“I hope Ms. Le Pen will never become France’s President, to be clear,” he told the Berlin Foreign Office Forum in Berlin in November, adding that he was “confident that French voters will be smart enough.”
After European parliament elections in May 2014, in which Front National won nearly 25 percent of French voters, Mr. Schäuble said Ms. Le Pen's party was not a right-wing party but “a fascist party.''
Germany is hoping for a candidate who will take France out of its rut and makes it look boldly towards the future. There’s hope that Mr. Fillon or Mr. Macron can generate the necessary momentum.
From Berlin’s point of view, a Front National victory would paralyze France and sever the Paris-Berlin bond.
But at this point, a Front National victory appears unlikely.
French polls consistently show that Ms. Le Pen, despite her high popularity, would lose handily to both Mr. Fillon and Mr. Macron in second-round voting.
But there are still two months before the French vote, and that's plenty of time for more surpises in a race that appears wide open.
So in the meantime, all Berlin can do is to wait and see.