Brad MacdonaldColumnist

France vs. Germany: The Rivalry Heats Up

March 6, 2008 | From

Europe’s two leading powers are jostling for continental dominance. Who will emerge the victor?

France’s long-standing reputation for being “unstable as water” (Genesis 49:4) was on full display last week. On February 25, Élysée Palace canceled a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The French reneged 24 hours before the scheduled meeting due to Mr. Sarkozy’s “busy agenda.”

The next day, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck also canceled his biannual meeting (scheduled for March 3) with French counterpart Christine Lagarde. Apparently Lagarde needed to accompany President Sarkozy on what amounted to little more than a routine visit to a health center and luxury-goods factory.

Busy or not, high-level meetings between two European superpowers are not normally canceled at the last minute because one official is too busy. Two cancellations in two days means that clearly, something’s afoot in the Franco-German relationship.

“As much as this rift looks like a series of small tit-for-tat exchanges,” remarked Stratfor, “it is much more serious than that. It is a sign of a generational shift in two highly competitive European superpowers that have different visions for how to run Europe” (February 27, emphasis mine throughout). Last week’s public spats made it clear: France and Germany are engaged in a gritty tug-of-war for dominance of a European continent that is re-emerging as a world-class, widely embraced superpower.

The real reason for the abrupt cancellation of the meeting between the German chancellor and the French president involved the contentious issue of Paris’s vision for a Mediterranean Union. The creation of a formal bloc of Mediterranean states, in many ways analogous to the European Union, that would connect countries in Southern Europe with North African countries as well as Turkey, Israel, Syria and Lebanon, has been a dream of Sarkozy’s since his days as a presidential candidate. Making this dream a reality has been a focal point of his presidency, and the primary reason for his recent jaunts across North Africa and the southern Mediterranean.

Germany—and this is putting it mildly—is patently unenthused by Sarkozy’s designs for a French-driven Mediterranean Union.

The perception in Berlin is that Paris’s Mediterranean dream is driven by a desire to reassert French influence in the EU, North Africa and the Middle East, and amounts to little more than an expensive distraction from the real task at hand in Europe, which is the creation of a German-dominated, Christian-based European Union.

Brussels-based think tank European Policy Center characterized Sarkozy’s quest for a Mediterranean Union as an attempt to “re-brand France’s traditional politique arabe [Arab policy] and to shake up the enlarged EU by giving new impetus to Paris’s traditional role in the European integration process.” By marginalizing non-Mediterranean EU states, France is essentially trying to redefine Europe, said Stratfor, “and in doing so is touching every hot button in Europe—from trade to immigration” (February 26).

The French president canceled his meeting with Chancellor Merkel last week because he knew she was primed for confrontation.

Then Russia threw a spanner in the works.

Early Monday, hours after Dmitry Medvedev’s electoral victory, Moscow announced that it was cutting gas supplies to Ukraine by 25 percent. The announcement reverberated in Europe. The European Union gets 80 percent of its natural gas from Russia, with 25 percent of the EU’s natural gas supply flowing through pipelines running across Ukraine. The next day Moscow compounded the crisis by cutting supplies by another 25 percent, heightening the fear among Europeans that Kiev, in order to meet its own needs, will reduce the volume of gas flowing west.

Russia’s political and economic belligerence demanded a response. So this Saturday, Chancellor Merkel will travel to Moscow for what will undoubtedly be testy negotiations with Vladimir Putin and Medvedev. With the Russians spoiling for a rumble, the Germans have little patience for a spat with the French. Merkel’s priority now, as Stratfor noted, “is to rally a united European front before it heads into negotiations with Russia” (March 4).

And that’s precisely the reason Merkel and Sarkozy hastily revisited the idea of a Mediterranean Union over dinner in Germany on Monday. The meeting appeared to be successful. Standing side by side at a press conference afterward, both leaders stated that a compromise on the Mediterranean Union had been reached and that Europe’s two behemoths were in harmony.

But reconciliation is never that simple: Read between the lines of the friendly platitudes and feigned smiles, and it’s obvious that France was forced to make heavy concessions. In reality, Monday night’s meeting likely did little to solve the Franco-German rift over the Mediterranean Union—but merely set it on the shelf for another day.

And it did nothing to reconcile the serious schism between France and Germany that has developed in recent months over Europe’s economic policies, especially its approach to the strengthening euro. That rift was part of the reason for last week’s cancelled meeting between the French and German finance ministers.

France’s economy, the eurozone’s second-largest, is suffering the consequences of a soaring, record-breaking euro. Thanks largely to the increasingly valuable euro, French exports have become less competitive on the international market, which has resulted in the swelling of the French trade deficit to more than $59 billion over the past year. Facing immense pressure to balance its books, Paris has been lobbying fellow EU member states to get together and pressure the European Central Bank (ecb), which operates independently from Brussels, to rethink its strong euro policy and relieve the economic stress on France and others by cutting interest rates.

Problem is, even though Germany’s export driven economic recovery is now beginning to also suffer from the same imbalance between the euro and the dollar, Europe’s largest economy refuses to get behind the French proposal. Buoyed by an economy recently recovered from recession and which produced a healthy trade surplus last year, Germany has, to this point, opposed the French notion of a eurozone summit to discuss the ecb matter, essentially telling Paris that the French must sort out their own economic problems. “It is ironic that in all the years Germany overlooked the issue, it chooses now—when relations are already tense—to cause another public rift with France” (Stratfor, February 27). Clearly, Germany is beginning to establish itself (which, by default, means marginalizing France) as the decision-maker in European economic policy.

But conflict over the Mediterranean Union and the EU’s monetary policies isn’t half the reason for the tension between Paris and Berlin. Tempers have flared recently over conflicting perspectives toward EU foreign and defense policy, the Lisbon Treaty and Germany’s refusal to devote troops to the French-sponsored EU mission to Darfur.

Then there’s the cantankerous personal relationship between Merkel and Sarkozy. “German officials say that the hyperactive and boastful behavior of the French president—and his over-familiar personal style—has irritated Ms. Merkel,” reported the Independent, while “French officials suggest Mr. Sarkozy finds Ms. Merkel too cautious and too ponderous.”

None of this is to suggest France and Germany are marching toward war. But it does point to schism in the Franco-German courtship that has been the bastion of European unity for nigh on 60 years. Cohesion between Europe’s two superpowers is increasingly being replaced with competition.

The fundamental cause of this epic change is Germany’s reawakening.

For nearly 40 years—from 1952 until near the end of the Cold War—while Germany remained divided between East and West, France projected its power by seeking single-handedly to dominate Europe and mobilize its own national interests. A divided Germany was forced to play a lesser role in the European balance of power. But in 1989, France was struck a blow from which it is still reeling. The crash of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent reunification of Germany marked a turning point, not just for Germany, but for France and the EU.

Since then, Germany has increasingly re-emerged as the European powerhouse. Though France continued to maintain a prominent leadership role in the EU, since Chancellor Kohl led a united Germany to shed a half-century mentality as a divided nation, and spearheaded its transformation into a political and economic powerhouse, the geopolitical face of Europe has changed drastically.

Meanwhile, France, under a continuing De Gaullist approach to foreign policy, had shifted in the opposite direction. As Stratfor put it, it is “looking out for French national interests in Europe rather than French superpower interests globally” (Dec. 7, 2007).

Now, since Sarkozy dispensed with De Gaullism, taking on a more outwardly aggressive foreign policy, for the first time in decades French and German interests and ambitions are beginning to clash. The traditionally harmonious relationship—legacy of a divided Germany—that previously underpinned European unity is being revolutionized. Paris and Berlin are reassuming their historically familiar roles as contenders for continental dominance.

The question is, who will emerge the victor of this titanic, age-old struggle?

There can be no doubt that Germany now dominates the European Union. Once the pillar of the EU, while ever Germany remained divided by the Wall, France has, since Germany’s reunification, been pushed aside in EU leadership. In a remarkable turn of events, the EU has been transformed from a vehicle for French continental dominance to a vehicle for German imperial ambition.

Germany’s preponderance within Europe will only grow. We can expect Germany to continue to increase its power and influence over fellow European nations, as well as for France to continue to be marginalized from EU leadership.

Biblical prophecy tells us that France and the other nations of Europe are more followers than leaders in this European combine—known in the Bible as the “king of the north” (Daniel 11:40). As the Trumpet has regularly pointed out over the years, the nation most behind the unification and leadership of the king of the north is Germany. European history and Bible prophecy tells us this is the nation to watch. To learn more about the future of Europe with Germany at the helm, read Germany and the Holy Roman Empire.

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