The End of Sarkozy, the Decline of the French-German Partnership

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The European experiment began as an effort to bring France and Germany together. Has it ended up driving them apart?

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Left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Right, just-elected French presidential candidate Francois Hollande. /Reuters

Around midnight on Sunday night, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called up French socialist candidate Francois Hollande to congratulate him on winning the presidential election, unseating Nicholas Sarkozy, the man with whom Merkel has warily led Europe through its increasingly fraught crisis. Sarkozy and Merkel had not gotten along wonderfully -- their two countries dealt with the European Union debt crisis very differently, and their personalities clashed famously -- but they still got along. It was a partnership for the sake of the European experiment, a union for which they've both labored, and for which their predecessors have labored for over 60 years.

But Hollande looks ready to take a slightly different approach. At times, he seemed to be campaigning nearly as much against German EU policies -- and thus against Merkel and Germany -- as against Sarkozy. "Germany doesn't decide for all of Europe," Hollande said recently, one of many comments positioning himself explicitly in opposition to German leadership, and channeling the rising French frustration with German policies. He will be France's first socialist party president in 24 years, but perhaps just as significantly, he appears poised to move his country away from Germany, after decades of French foreign policy designed to move the country close to its traditional enemy. This would be a reverse of decades of French policy, but it would also be a tiny step back toward the historical norm of French-German enmity.

Since the births of the modern French and German nations, the two countries' national identities have been defined in part by their opposition to the other. The French revolution culminated in the monarchy-ousting wars against, among others, the German powers of Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire, which also ceded long-contested territory to France. Napoleon Bonaparte galvanized French nationalism by waging war against those same countries, and his victories against the German states so wounded them that, when Germany finally unified two generations later, it was seen as a moment of not just German national pride but of revenge against French-imposed humiliation.

When Wilhelm the First proclaimed the creation of the German Empire in 1871, finally fulfilling the long-stymied dreams of unification, he did so not in Berlin or Vienna or Munich but in Versailles, the immaculate French palace in the suburb of Paris, which his army had just conquered. A definitive painting of the moment, The Proclamation of the Foundation of the German Reich by Anton von Werner, shows Wilhelm smirking as he stands before the throne from which generations of French rulers had frustrated German ambitions. Many factors led to the two world wars, but this rise of German nationalism, which formed and militarized in opposition to French nationalism, played a significant role in the first war, the German humiliations during which contributed to the second.

In 1949, their two societies devastated by the culmination of centuries of war, French and West German leaders came together to end their conflict once and for all through the magic of economics. The French Foreign Minister proposed that both nations surrender control of their steel and coal industries to the free market, integrating their production across France and Germany. The plan would make both nations richer and more efficient, and it would also ensure that, should they return to war, the integrated steel and coal markets would collapse, leaving both nations without the means for mechanized warfare. It was so brilliant that Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands all asked to join, and over time the the European Coal and Steel Community expanded in size and scope to the European Union.

But if the European Coal and Steel Community was founded to achieve French-German peace through economic integration, then over time it was economic integration that became the greater focus. The union expanded, the economic integration deepened, and soon France and Germany were, though the two most powerful members of the club, part of something much bigger. Successive treaties integrated the energy economy, trade tariffs, immigration, and the fiscal union of the Euro.

Ironically, the European Union's emphasis on economics and on wider Europe may have ultimately distracted from, and maybe even undermined, its original 1949 mission of French-German cooperation. As the very different French and German economies dealt in their very different ways with the debt crisis -- itself an unintended but direct result of the widened fiscal union -- their leadership has naturally diverged. The two countries are economically and politically structured to want different things from the union, and to seek diverging courses. This didn't create any cultural tensions, which are much older than the EU, but the two are mutually reinforcing. Hollande's win was a culmination of that tension. "Hollande win means G[ermany] no longer on same page with F[rance]," American economist Austan Goolsbee tweeted. "Didn't seem possible but life about to get much harder in the deadzone, er, euro zone."

This is not to say that France and Germany are moving, or will move, anywhere near their historic depth of enmity. The world has changed too much in the last 70 years; the end of colonialism and the decline of Europe has made intra-European competition less likely, European democracy and free trade have made cooperation more desirable and conflict less, and the rise of non-Western powers had made cooperation much more within Europe's interests. But there is still plenty of room for the old mistrusts to emerge, if far less dangerously than before, and the economic incentives for cooperation are waning with the health of the EU. If the Union resurges, and French and German interests realign as closely as they once did, the old hand-holding days could return. But that doesn't look likely to happen.

The era of French-German warfare, so terrible that its survivors sowed the seeds of the European Union, is probably long-over. But the era of long beach-side walks shared by the French and German leaders appears to be ending as well, at least for the moment.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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