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Europe's Favorite Power Couple May Find It Hard to Get Along

French President Chirac inherits a changing Franco-German alliance

THE close partnership between France and Germany has been the cornerstone of the European Community and of peace and security in Western Europe since not long after World War II. French and German leaders from Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer to Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl have made their partnership the priority of their foreign relations and a driving force in their domestic policies. The presidential-election victory of Jacques Chirac in France on May 7, along with a series of structural changes linked to the end of the cold war and German reunification, now places the Franco-German couple as we have come to know it at risk.

Mr. Chirac, like all the main candidates in the presidential election, placed friendship with Germany high on his foreign-policy agenda. He made all the right noises about the priority of good relations with Bonn. Indeed, close Franco-German relations within the European Union are now such a given that the issue played almost no role in the campaign. The idea of France turning its back on Germany for some alleged alternative is only present on the fringes of French politics. But within this context of an obligatory partnership, the policies Chirac may feel obliged to pursue, along with more important factors beyond his control, will make the special Franco-German relation more difficult now.

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The biggest problem for the new French president concerns money. Chirac made his way to the Elysee largely by promising, or at least hinting at, a break with the conservative monetary and salary policies France has pursued since 1983, which are perceived by some to be the cause of France's more than 12 percent unemployment. His support for European monetary union has been inconstant. He has even begun to call for a ''different policy,'' the same phrase used by those who in 1983 tried to convince President Mitterrand that France should leave the European monetary system and continue to reflate the domestic economy.

Chirac could find a way to back out of his pledges on pay and pensions (and probably will, remembering the inflationary and trade consequences when he tried to spend France out of a recession as prime minister in 1974). But if, under pressure from an electorate with high expectations, he does abandon the policy of the franc fort he can expect German hostility. German industrial and political leaders are already furious with Washington's willingness to let the dollar fall. They would not look favorably on similar policy in France, which absorbs far more of Germany's exports (12 percent) than does the United States.

Another challenge to Franco-German relations is European political integration. Chirac has had many different personalities on this issue over the years, from the nationalist who attacked pro-European President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1979 as being in the pocket of ''the foreigner'' to the moderate supporter of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

Chirac's Rally for the Republic party (RPR) is deeply divided on this issue. Two-thirds of the RPR, including key Chirac ally Philippe Seguin, voted against the Maastricht Treaty and is clearly unwilling to accept the sort of integrated Europe that will be the German priority at the European Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) in 1996. Perhaps this is not important, and Chirac's advisers are right when they argue that the Franco-German relationship transcends any misguided dreams of a ''United States of Europe.'' But if the Germans do take their dreams seriously at the IGC and France is perceived as preventing them, Chirac can expect Germany to refuse to give ground on French priorities such as agricultural subsidies and the defense of European culture.

Security relations with the US and NATO is another area in which Franco-German relations under Chirac might suffer. Although at times Chirac has positioned himself as a strong Atlanticist (usually to contrast himself with Mitterrand's pro-European policies), he is at heart a traditional Gaullist, committed to France's grandeur and independent military role. Bosnia, Iraq, nuclear testing, and the development of independent European military capabilities are issues on which Chirac's France may well be on one side of the fence, with Germany and the US on the other.

None of these potential strains is new. Observers of Franco-German relations have seen many crises come and go while the overall relationship remained strong. But the Franco-German relationship is different now. During the cold war, West Germany needed a close partnership with France as a contribution to its political legitimization and security. Even the more assertive Germany that emerged in the 1970s was extremely careful not to offend France excessively.

Today, Germany has more freedom of maneuver. It is no longer under a direct security threat. It has important new economic, security, and ethnic interests in Eastern Europe. It has an economy nearly 40 percent larger than France's. While its trade and security ties with France are still most important, Germany has new foreign-policy options, including economic and political integration in the East. With Berlin's budgets strained by the costs of reunification and its economy challenged by the strong mark, the German largess that has served as the grease to keep the Franco-German relationship from overheating may not be available. Simply put, Germany needs France less than it used to.

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The most likely future for the Franco-German couple under Chirac is a muddle. Each will take divergent interests into the 1996 IGC, make a series of bargains and compromises, and find a symbol such as the Franco-German Defense Council, the Economic and Finance Council, or the Eurocorps to proclaim the relationship intact. But there is also a danger, even if slight, that Chirac will try his ''different policy'' and assume the Germans, as before, will indulge him. If he does, he could well be wrong.

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