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

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.

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

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