PARIS CRITIQUE ‘Thank You, Putin!’

French businessman, writer and political advisor Alain Minc once worried about Germany going it alone in Europe. Now, Russia is helping adjust the balance of power in the region.
Chancellor Merkel is steering Europe but how long will Germany's strength last?

Alain Minc’s parents were Jews who fled Poland and joined the resistance against the Nazis. His grandparents died in the Holocaust. Today, the French businessman, writer and political advisor keeps a close eye on Germany’s role in Europe, as he tells Die Zeit journalist Georg Blume.

Do you think that Germany is overly powerful but isolated?

No. People should stay calm – Germany has a very strong position in Europe, but that won’t last much longer.

Why, who's competing with Germany for its position?

No, it's something Germany is doing itself; everyone knows about the demographic problems there. The country is bound to become less competitive due to wage increases because of the shortage of workers. There's also the absurd energy policy, too. At some point, the Chinese will learn how to build machine tools themselves. Germany has passed its prime.

Nonetheless, isn’t there growing mistrust, even fear, of Germany?

Any fear is unfounded. Vladimir Putin is doing Germans a huge favor at the moment. The actual father of European unity after World War II is not Monnet, Schuman or Adenauer. His name was Stalin. Today the return of a Russian threat is serving to greatly reduce the danger of Germany going it alone. The proof is Chancellor Merkel's attitude.

She's no Cold Warrior.

But Putin forced her to take a much clearer position than she would otherwise be inclined to do so, in terms of her temperament. In this sense, Putin is a lucky break for Europe.

Was the chancellor a risk factor beforehand?

There was a risk. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and (his foreign minister) Joschka Fischer made Germany an important player in the Western alliance. Chancellor Merkel never stuck to this line. She pursued what we could call a Swiss foreign policy: humanist, nice to everybody, like a rich Red Cross. But Putin means she can't keep going in this vein. So again: Thank you, Putin! He's bonding Europe together at not too high a price.

Are we really getting closer? There’s not much evidence of that in the relationship between Germany and the United States.

The incredible distrust of the USA is actually a German peculiarity ― but one I fully understand. Let the Germans stand up to the Americans on data protection! I don’t have anything against that. But Germany can’t mount an effective resistance alone. That is only possible as European resistance; and that forces Germans to be pro-European.

Could Germany maintain the illusion of being a lone fighter?

No, that's impossible. Three things have come together: the relative Russian threat, a distrust of the United States and the risk of Great Britain leaving the European Union. So Merkel has no other choice but to stick with Europe.

But the gulf between Paris and Berlin seems larger than ever; the French government is criticizing Germany for not investing enough for Europe.

I totally disagree with these criticisms. When Germany raises wages every 18 months by 5 percent, it's already investing in the upturn. (Finance Minister) Wolfgang Schäuble has said it clearly: Germans prefer to stimulate growth through higher wages rather than through public deficits.

What's more, Merkel is allowing (European Central Bank President) Mario Draghi to pursue his policies undisturbed. Jens Weidmann, the head of the German Central Bank, can vote otherwise, but he's alone, his role is meaningless. The fact is that the Germans have accepted that the European Central Bank is pursuing monetary flexibility according to the U.S. model. Their industry requires this; higher wages come at a cost.

But Europe is economically stagnant and needs investment, and the Germans are committed to austerity.

Austerity? With wage increases of 5 percent?

Isn’t Germany's keenness on saving money pretty rare in Europe?

Agreed ― the Germans have a balanced budget. They are just as proud of that today as they used to be about the German mark. But that’s not everything.

Under the cover of budgetary virtue, they are hiding what are probably the slackest measures in all of Europe: a new minimum wage, wage increases far above rises in productivity, an utterly absurd social-security policy reducing the retirement age in a geriatric population, and an expensive energy policy. But to that I say: all the better! This is bringing Europe back into balance.

When a German stands at the counter in a French store today, people often ask: “How's our boss doing?”

Indeed, Ms. Merkel is in some sense our boss, because we currently don’t have one. But that has more to do with François Hollande's personality. When the crisis began in Ukraine, he should have landed with his airplane in Berlin, invited the chancellor to climb aboard and flown on to Moscow.

But Hollande didn’t do anything. He isn't active, he's just reactive. When he ordered military intervention in Mali, he should have consulted with Germany first, that was another missed opportunity. It's as if he's inhibited regarding Germany.


Even today, he still hasn’t recovered from the referendum on a European constitution, where he voted “Yes” while a majority of the French voted “No.”

What should he do to work better with Germany?

He ought to suggest that German and French troops be stationed in the Baltic countries, together with the British and Americans. Only a few thousand, as a reminder that these countries also belong to NATO. Being proactive is always a possibility.

You used to be concerned about German pacifism; aren’t you now concerned about the new populism, for example with the rightist Alternative for Germany party?

There's populism everywhere in Europe. Because of the weight of its history, it affected Germany less, though now the country is normalizing in this sense. German populists are weak, however.

Whereas France is being overwhelmed by nationalists?

I don’t believe in a victory of the critics of Europe and an end of the euro. Especially not in Germany. No German chancellor would ever risk undermining European cohesion, this is where morality and self-interest coincide.

The historical impetus is too great. And at the same time, Germany has done quite well with the euro. Now the mark would be worth 1.80 to the dollar. Germany wouldn’t be the export power that it is today.

But aren’t many French people turning away from Germany?

Now you're exaggerating! We don’t have any Germanophobes. (Former President) Sarkozy, who now has reassumed an official role as his party's leader, will soon be back in Berlin eating sausages with Angela – then use that for domestic politics.

Will France ever catch up with Germany economically?

Faster than you think. In 1983, we had 15 percent higher labor costs, in 1995 they were 15 percent lower than in Germany, and in 2007 15 percent higher again. France will have to raise its value-added tax for the next five years and use the revenues to cut companies' social costs.

It has to raise the retirement age and get rid of the 35-hour workweek. That would do it, but we’ll have to wait two years for that.

Until your friend Sarkozy is president again?

Today I'm putting my hopes in his moderate competitor on the right, Alain Juppé, who would be more acceptable to the left. Because France’s honor demands that, in the next presidential elections, the candidate on the right performs better than (National Front leader) Marine Le Pen.

But to do this, the candidate on the right will need many votes from the left. The only current candidate on the right who can do this is Alain Juppé. And he is a classic European. It would be in France's interest for him to be elected, but unfortunately, I can’t make any predictions.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]