Germany’s closest partner slips further away

Space radar image of Rhine River, France and Germany.
Space radar image of Rhine River, France and Germany. Photo: NASA/JPL

About a year ago, Germany’s first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS) was published after 18 months in the making. The lengthy paper is not really a strategy. Rather, it is a collection of all the things Berlin would like to do in an ideal world, describing Germany’s self-image as well as the foreign and security consensus at the time without setting any priorities.

Relations with Israel’s far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are frayed to such an extent that it is not clear that the relationship will fully recover eventually, especially if Israel remains in the grip of the political forces currently in government.

Observers were surprised that only three countries were mentioned by name: France, the US and Israel. These were Germany’s three ‘special relationships’, framing its foreign policy and security outlook, or so the many authors of that NSS document thought. Twelve months on, the picture has been changing dramatically.

Relations with Israel’s far-right government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are frayed to such an extent that it is not clear that the relationship will fully recover eventually, especially if Israel remains in the grip of the political forces currently in government. When it comes to Germany’s most important ally, the US, a return of Donald Trump to the White House would likely bring about an end to Germany’s close bond, which had guaranteed the country’s security for most of the postwar period.

And with the recent result of the parliamentary snap elections called by President Emmanuel Marcon, France is likely to slip further away too.

1. Moving apart

The Franco-German relationship, based on the 1963 Élysée Treaty and its ‘refresh’, the Aachen Treaty signed in 2019, is Germany’s core relationship in Europe and certainly the closest of any two European states. That has not stopped the two countries seeing their differences becoming ever-more pronounced, with Chancellor Angela Merkel and more recently Chancellor Olaf Scholz largely unresponsive to Macron’s many European initiatives. At the same time, the two societies slowly but surely move further apart. All the dangers of a far-right win in France were clearly seen in Berlin.

Therefore, the outcome of the second round of parliamentary elections was certainly greeted with much relief in Germany. The worst-case scenario had been avoided –a French government led by the far-right Rassemblement National (RN), with the young Jordan Bardella as Prime Minister and other RN figures as Foreign and Defence ministers. Instead, the winner on 7 July was the quickly-assembled left block Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP), bringing together the far-left La France Insoumise led by the rabble-rousing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Socialists, the Greens and the Communists, with 182 seats in the new Assemblée National. To the surprise of many, Macron’s force, Ensemble, managed to come second, with 168 seats, followed by RN with 143.

It is unclear what the result will mean for France itself. Just like in Julius Caesar’s De bello Gallico (58-51 AD), the country is divided ‘into three parts’ –left, right and centre– that seem to be equally strong, but politically incompatible. This likely means that there will be political deadlock, possibly for the rest of Macron’s presidential term, which ends in 2027. Macron’s idea of disrupting the old French party system, uniting centrist forces behind him and overcoming the ‘old’ left-right divide, has clearly failed.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, the ‘mini-Macron’ who has done better than most expected in the President’s dangerous electoral gamble, has offered his resignation, but he and his government will likely stay in place, at least until after the Olympic Games, until the new ‘structure of the parliament’ (Macron) has emerged.

2. Towards a Sixth Republic?

One can read the result as a vote against the presidential system. In that respect, France is becoming ‘more German’, with the French voters demanding contrarian political forces working together, as currently witnessed in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ ill-fitting, troublesome three-way coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and pro-business Free Democrats.

But while it is not inconceivable that France is on the way to a Sixth Republic, with the parliament eventually taking centre-stage, a country suffering from political chaos and blockage is just as likely. Early talk of building a ‘coalition’ by combining the less-radical Socialists and Greens from the NFP with Macron’s party and the centre-right Les Republicains, which won 45 seats, is more of a theoretical possibility.

Worse, RN with Marine Le Pen at its head will not go away. Roughly 10.7 million French voters opted for it in the second round, with around 9.1 million for the NFP and 7 million for Ensemble. Having been thwarted by tactical voting on the part of the left and the centre (candidates withdrew if the other had a better chance to beat the RN candidate), the party can continue to spin the narrative of an out-of-touch French elite sabotaging the will of the people. Come 2027, Le Pen is likely to have the best chance yet of winning the presidency.

3. Trouble ahead

In that case, the Franco-German relationship ‘as we know it’ would likely end. Le Pen has moderated many of her most radical policies such as leaving the EU and/or the euro, but there is little doubt about her contempt for Germany (she has even broken with Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland –AfD–, which is so toxic that next to no other political force in Europe wants to work with it).

Under Le Pen’s leadership, Paris would work to unwind the EU and its integrationist achievements, pushing instead for its concept of a ‘Europe of nation states’. This runs counter to the core belief of German foreign policy and ends various Franco-German defence-industry initiatives, from a new fighter-jet system -FCAS- and battle tank -MGCS-, which only saw a breakthrough earlier this year, to the joint development of a long-range strike capability, as agreed during Macron’s state visit to Germany in June.

Even in the immediate outlook, with continued political uncertainty in France, Germany will struggle to adjust to the new realities. For instance, French support for Ukraine (which both the far left and the far right in France are sceptical about, to put it mildly) is secure for this year, with €3 billion committed by Paris plus various military projects. But with a new, left-dominated government in place, this might well change in 2025, likely forcing Germany to take up an even bigger share.

Looking at the policies the NFP is promoting, including rolling Macron’s pension reform and massive deficit spending at a time when France’s finances are already highly strained, there is already the worry that such a government might push the country into a debt crisis. This would immediately affect the whole of the eurozone.

What’s more, a weakened Macron will no longer be in a position to push for a strong, expansive EU agenda, as he did most recently in his second Sorbonne speech. Chancellor Scholz is unlikely to pick up that mantle. The European policies of his government have remained vague and often reluctant. Mister Nö (‘Mister Nope’), who only recently brusquely rejected any idea of financing Europe’s –obviously highly necessary– military build-up vis-à-vis a threatening Russia by common European debt, prefers to tell everyone what he is not prepared to do, and that list is long.

Entirely missing on Germany’s part is a European policy that moves the EU forward at its possibly most critical time. With France slipping further away, this lack of leadership will only get worse. It is not only Germany’s closest partner across the River Rhine that needs more fundamental changing, it is also Berlin’s approach to Europe and the world.