Franco-German Couple on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

26 November 2019

Steven Erlanger, formerly the Times correspondent in Paris, now based in London, published an extraordinary scoop the other day. Somehow he got on the record this admonition from Angela Merkel to Emmanuel Macron:

“I understand your desire for disruptive politics,” Ms. Merkel said. “But I’m tired of picking up the pieces. Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”

These are the depths to which the Franco-German relationship has fallen. How far we have come since Macron’s election 2 1/2 years ago, when many commentators, including me, looked forward to an Era of Good Feeling between the two powers at the heart of Europe and the European project. And we were right to do so. Macron had run on a platform of enthusiastic support for Europe as the best hope not only for France but for Europe, liberal democracy, and global stability. Merkel, while always more circumspect, had nevertheless openly supported Macron: he was, after all, promising to make France look more like Germany by reducing the deficit and reducing labor-market regulation and paring back worker protections. At the same time he was advocating closer defense cooperation and collaboration in controlling Europe’s external borders. Of course, he also wanted a larger European budget, a Eurozone parliament, and other things about which Merkel was less enthusiastic, but on the whole the future looked rosy.

What happened? First, Merkel was weakened at home by a serious setback in the Bundestag elections. She had to relinquish her party leadership, to a handpicked successor to be sure, but a successor who nevertheless had to give some ground to placate the conservative faction of the party. Macron, for his part, faced the Gilet Jaune uprising, to quell which he was forced to open state coffers, making France once again seem to be the unreliable partner the Germans had always been wary of. But even before that, Germany had been pulling back from the initial embrace, as Macron grandstanded his way around Europe, upstaging Merkel without consultation, alienating East Europeans by bluntly calling out their shortcomings, and setting himself up as the defender of “progressivism” against “populist nationalism” while at the same time, hypocritically, cracking down on refugees in France and in other ways attempting to appease the nationalist right.

The result was the extraordinary rebuke from Merkel that Erlanger captured in print. So who’s to blame for this separation, which thank heaven has yet to culminate in divorce? As in most marital disputes, there’s blame on both sides. Merkel, despite her verbal support for Macron’s Europeanism, delivered nothing in the way of material support, not even in the security realm. She looked on, mostly in silence, as Macron alternately wooed Trump and then rebuffed him with his bold recognition of the new reality of American disinterest in Europe, which of course predates Trump but has been exacerbated by his contempt for the Old Continent. Still, his declaration of NATO’s “brain death” was reckless, no matter how important it is to reconsider the meaning of Article 5 at a time when Turkey could find itself under attack by any number of hostile forces and call upon its NATO allies to defend it.

Military matters aside, the essence of this quarrel is Europe-centric, not geostrategic. The crisis should have concentrated both French and German minds about what needs to be done to revitalize the European project. Macron has at least been trying to think through the issues. His impetuosity has led to precipitous announcements, however, and his grandiosity and inexperience have only compounded his inability to bring others along behind him. Merkel suffers from the opposite flaws: she is overly cautious and risk-averse and on her way out of politics. She faces rising opposition at home and needs to calm her conservative supporters, whose ideas about Europe are diametrically opposed to Macron’s: they like the status quo, whereas he wants radical change. Hence the blowup in Brussels. The way forward is unclear. For the moment, both partners are sulking in their corners; Macron will be sleeping on the couch for a while, while Merkel’s friends will be commiserating with her about the difficulty of cohabiting with a young hothead.


Photo Credit: Mitchell Joyce, Set me adrift and I’m lost forever, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.



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