Early in December, Dassault Aviation’s Chairman and CEO Eric Trappier revealed that his firm has reached a business agreement with Airbus to develop Europe’s next generation fighter aircraft. This aircraft is a crucial component of the €100 billion French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which also includes the design and manufacture of the accompanying drone system and the development of the technology related to the design of a stealth aircraft, a combat cloud system, and the sensors that go with it.
The Dassault-Airbus agreement was reached after years of stalemate caused by France’s rejection of German demands regarding intellectual property and the selling practices of this aircraft. France perceived those demands as an attempt to weaken Dassault by acquiring its trade secrets while supporting the German industry at any cost and at the expense of operational effectiveness.
In September, the FCAS project and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) were on their deathbeds, but the political leadership and the ministries of defense in both countries stepped in to save them. Considering the nature of relations between France and Germany, the deteriorating rapport between President Macron and Chancellor Schultz, and the fact that Germany has recently purchased US-made planes while cutting France out of some projects, observers anticipated this attempt would fail. Nonetheless, the two sides were able to come to a compromise that allows for the start of collaborative research. Germany reportedly waived its demands, which, to be honest, were actually quite unreasonable.
Observers have two possible interpretations for the shift in Germany’s position. For some, there’s a possibility that France has given something in return that wasn’t declared. For others, the situation is far more complicated. They argue that Germany believed it held the upper hand because of France’s greater need for the success of these projects and Germany’s access to competing options like a similar British-Italian-Swedish initiative that was experiencing poor financing due to the countries’ respective budgetary conditions. This option, however, vanished when Japan joined these countries and solved the financing issues. A partnership with South Korea was a third option, but neither party possessed the technology required to design the most recent thrusters.
Overall, this breakthrough does not rule out the possibility of further obstacles and difficulties. The Bundestag (German Parliament) will vote on each stage of the project before moving forward. Germany still has another as it, in theory, has no objections to purchasing US weapons, whereas France is of the opinion that maintaining its strategic independence necessitates local production of its weapons. Noteworthy, in a confidential letter to the German Parliament that was leaked to the press, the German military leadership expressed reservations about buying the F35 planes due to the high cost and delivery dates. Although US planes’ quick availability is undoubtedly an advantage over the Franco-German-Spanish project, German rhetoric suggests that Berlin isn’t willing to put all of its eggs in one basket.
The Dassault-Airbus agreement follows a joint declaration on energy solidarity between the two countries, according to which Germany commits to sell electricity to France and France commits to sell gas to Germany. These agreements are indicative of a shared desire to alleviate the tension that has plagued relations between the two countries for several years but has only recently surfaced after having been quelled. Since 2016, I have not encountered a French official, cadre, or politician who did not have something negative to say about Germany. However, for a variety of reasons, including French presidents’ desire to maintain and develop their bilateral ties with Germany and their joint desire to steer the European Union, these individuals’ opinions were not shared with the media.
There is an endless supply of controversial files and unresolved issues between the two countries, but before we delve into some of them, it would be beneficial to provide a general overview of their relationship’s history and how the elites in both countries view it.
Arguably, the relations between Germany and France — the two most important countries in the European Union — have undergone two major phases: the pre- and post-German unification phase or the Cold War phase and subsequent period. During the initial phase, relations between the two countries were cordial and seamless, and they were on equal footing and if the balance had shifted, it would have done so sharply in favor of France. Germany gradually grew into an economic powerhouse, while France possessed political experience, nuclear weapons, and a permanent seat in the Security Council. Germany needed a strong and positive relationship with its former enemy, France, to demonstrate its capacity for “normalization”, that is, to show that it has transformed into a normal country that doesn’t attack anyone and doesn’t commit the atrocities that Hitler did. The French leadership, meanwhile, was concerned about the US dominance over the Western camp, given its position on the Tripartite Aggression and the Middle East crises in the period between 1956 and 1958 and its perceived lack of understanding of the threat of nuclear annihilation to Western Europe. Therefore, Paris was endeavoring to deepen its ties with other European countries so that France and Europe could become somewhat independent of the United States and have the power to influence and possibly reshape the international order. The relationships between François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl, Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, and Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer were all distinguished by an exceptional warmth.
The second phase was that of the unification of Germany and beyond. The balance of power tipped during this period, with Germany emerging as the more powerful party. This development went unnoticed by the French until it was too late. Perhaps this could be attributed to Presidents Mitterrand and Chirac’s limited understanding of economics. Germany’s involvement in the financing and management of the unification of the two Germanys as well as the restructuring of the economies of Eastern Europe made the final decade of the twentieth century “difficult” for Berlin. Yet the unification increased Germany’s demographic weight, and the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc enabled its economic expansion in the East. Brussels, for its part, paid a significant portion of the costs associated with the renewal of the infrastructure there, while Germany relocated a large number of factories to East European countries, thereby reducing production costs. With the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe, Berlin has replaced Paris as its center.
Fearing the possibility of a German-Russian alliance, the French attempted to “link Germany to Europe.” Thatcher, the then-prime minister of the United Kingdom, warned Mitterrand at that time that he was “not anchoring Germany to Europe, but Europe to a newly dominant, unified Germany”. The course of events proved she was correct, even after a while. For the purpose of such an anchoring, France proposed the Euro single currency project and agreed to German terms. Germany set terms that were generally accepted but served it and hurt the economies of southern Europe by denying them the ability to devalue their currencies to boost exports and tourism. Germany wanted a strong currency that would enable it to lower the cost of employment in Eastern Europe and was afraid of the southern countries’ propensity to spend more than their revenues. Germany’s terms included a cap on debt and prioritized combating inflation. For the first time in its history, Germany found itself “surrounded by friends”, leading Berlin to believe it didn’t need an army.
All things considered, it can be said that Germany has a distinct economic, industrial, and commercial strategy, and that its foreign policy is a part of this strategy. In addition to strengthening resources and capabilities, Berlin’s strategy aims to undermine rivals and lessen the significance of connectivity to the French market. At least, this is the French cadres’ perception, and they have many arguments to back it up, chief among them the German position regarding the French civil nuclear energy sector. Germany, on the other hand, insists that it does not export weapons to so-called “crisis areas”, but this claim is belied by the facts. Further, the significance of trade with France gradually decreased as ties between Germany, Russia, and China were improved.
France, on the other hand, failed to develop a coherent industrial policy and made a number of mistakes that reduced the sector’s contribution to GDP and had a devastating effect on the country’s standing and economy. These mistakes included primarily the passage of a legislation establishing the maximum weekly working hours at 35 hours. The French economy’s competitiveness was impacted by this labor law reform. This was considered “good news for the German economy”, according to the German Minister for Economic Affairs at the time. At large, France’s 35-hour work week policy hastened the demise of several industrial sectors and exacerbated the unemployment issue.
When President Sarkozy attempted to emulate Germany by locating some industries in neighboring countries in the southern Mediterranean to reduce labor costs by establishing the Union for the Mediterranean, Germany thwarted the project. Over the past decades, French debt and deficit have grown in contrast to Germany’s cost-effective approach, which came at a cost. The cost? Berlin’s failure to invest in necessary infrastructure, defense, and future generations. As an example, Germany’s stance on immigration may be explained by the fact that the country has never actively pursued policies that promote childbearing.
To round out the picture, we must add that the French elites were deeply impressed by the “German model” and recognized its benefits, especially those that France lacked, such as the tradition of negotiation and consultation between business owners and employees. But they overlooked its other face and Germany’s insistence on pursuing anti-Paris policies for a variety of, often justifiable, reasons. So, while the upper crust of French society is fixated on the idea of a Franco-German couple ruling Europe, Berlin views Paris as merely an important partner and nothing more.
Stronger ties between France and Germany have developed at various points in the current century, including during the fight against the United States’ invasion of Iraq. In general, however, Chancellor Merkel, who was born in East Germany, did not stand successive French presidents and was more concerned with Germany’s relationship with Eastern Europe countries and Prussia at a time when the French elite tended to openly express its disdain and even its contempt for Eastern European countries, which were newcomers to the European Union. For example, President Chirac once stated that “Poland missed an opportunity to shut up.” and in the early months of his first term, Macron handled a crisis with Poland with a startling amount of arrogance.
It’s important to realize that the two countries’ action mechanisms are distinct from one another. France is a centralized country, despite its support for the decentralization principle, and the French president is endowed with broad powers by the constitution that enable them to act quickly. Germany, on the other hand, is a federation in which no official has the authority that the president of France or even the US has, and what further complicates the situation are the German coalition governments, in which the foreign, defense, and finance ministers rarely come from the same party.
I’ve often heard French government officials gripe about German officials lecturing them on financial management. For instance, a French official once remarked, “They talk about governance, but they chose to let go of their army, young generation, and infrastructure.” Another noted, “When I started my career in the mid-1980s, it was France that preached and offered advice in a manner that resembled commands. Today, however, the situation has reversed, and we are the side that receives advice, sermons, and ridicule.”
Notably, Germany’s ability to form blocs within the European Union exacerbated the imbalance. Countries that practice good governance frequently join Berlin in voting against countries that are wasteful and have high debts and deficits, i.e. southern countries. Eastern European countries also favor casting their votes as frequently as possible with Berlin. The French, on the other hand, do not trust the Italians, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, the major bone of contention between the two countries is their respective positions on the United States, NATO, European defense, and Eastern Europe, all of which are interconnected issues. To put it succinctly: France recognizes that Europe is shifting away from being a “player with a role” to a “theater” or “playground” in which major countries compete to control it and that European interests are distinct from US interests. Indeed, this happens to be the case, albeit with the major caveat that the interests of European countries are inherently conflicting and therefore impossible to reconcile. For instance, the US and Polish positions toward Russia and China are different from those of France and Germany. Europe is interested in African affairs and has vital interests in Africa, and France believes that Europe cannot rely entirely, or even primarily, on Washington. Paris may have a point here, and President Trump’s election has shown that European countries need to develop a common defense strategy to achieve “strategic autonomy” that protects European interests.
From a French perspective, two concepts or aspects make up this strategic autonomy: the first is the capacity to defend Europe, and the second is the capacity to act unilaterally (without US support). The first aspect seems unattainable, while the second appears doable. To be fair, the French president stated unequivocally that he has no intention of forsaking the United States in “”defending Europe” and that he is well aware that defending the continent requires “a very strong alliance with the United States.” Despite this clear assertion, some French actions still raise doubts, particularly Macron’s tendency to downplay the gravity of a Russian threat and his adoption of a flip-flop policy with Moscow.
Even though France occasionally disputes this, most European countries understand that France means and wants “independence” from and against Washington and supports statements that speak of a role for European defense that complements rather than replaces NATO. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European countries saw that this independence was neither feasible nor desirable, a position that the Russian invasion vindicated. The inadequate French aid, along with the inability of the French political elites to consider the concerns, apprehensions, and interests of Eastern European countries toward Ukraine, confirmed European skepticism. Furthermore, all of President Macron’s remarks sparked skepticism among his counterparts, who see that France prioritized strengthening its position in Europe and using European resources to advance its own goals over those of others, particularly the “newcomers”.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France voiced its displeasure with the majority of European countries’ failure to increase defense spending, indulgence in the privatization of certain crucial economic and industrial sectors, and acceptance of their break with the past. Additionally, it was and still is unhappy with these countries’ propensity to purchase US weapons despite the availability of a superior French alternative.
On several occasions, President Macron publicly chastised his counterparts on this. In one of his speeches in February 2020 Macron said, “To build the Europe of tomorrow, our norms cannot be controlled by the United States, our infrastructure, our ports and airports owned by the Chinese capital, and our computer networks under Russian pressure.” Although what he said is true, it unintentionally reveals the French propensity to view the United States, just like Russia and China, as a threat.
France is also deeply dissatisfied with Berlin’s sporadic demands that France give up its permanent seat in the Security Council in favor of the European Union. Notably, this was first advocated for by the then-finance minister Olaf Schulz, who is currently the German chancellor… This says it all.