The year 2023 starts with the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, the cornerstone of reconciliation and partnership between the Federal Republic of Germany and France after the catastrophe of the Second World War. This partnership is today actively supported by more than 80% of the populations of both countries and is seen as a major driving force behind the future of the European Union.
This is the result of a survey commissioned jointly by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung and the French Fondation de l’Écologie Politique and carried out by the Institut IPSOS. Its findings show considerable consensus between French and German society.
Far more commonalities than differences
In recent months, much has been said about the differences between the two, even to the extent of a crisis in the Franco-German relationship. This survey, however, clearly shows that there are far more commonalities than differences. There is a solid foundation and overwhelming support for this partnership.
This is the case in particular when it comes to the major topical issues in Europe: the energy and climate crisis, common security and defence in Europe and tackling the growing inequality that intensified during the pandemic and has continued to do so since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. On the war in particular, the survey also shows that a strong majority of more than 60% is in favour of supporting Ukraine by supplying heavy weaponry, taking in refugees from Ukraine and continuing sanctions against Russia.
However, this comprehensive insight into the Franco-German partnership and its role in the cohesion of the European Union is no cause for complacency. It should be seen as a call to both governments to shape this alliance responsibly, as more than a third of survey respondents felt that the relationship had cooled somewhat over the last year.
Tensions at the highest level
This perception owes much to tensions at the very highest government levels – acting out of sync and a lack of communication between Chancellor Scholz and President Macron. To be fair, Russia’s war on Ukraine meant that the new German government had barely taken office before it had to deal with an entirely new world, while France was in the midst of presidential and parliamentary elections right through until the early summer. Not the smoothest of roads to embark on a journey together.
Yet the road was not without its bumps in the years of Merkel and Macron. Berlin’s unilateral, unagreed and in some cases brutally implemented border closure between Germany and France at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 marked a low in relations. It was not only an incursion into the highly emotive symbolism of two heavily intertwined border regions, but it also ripped apart the everyday lives of many people in a grossly personal way, in their professional as well as their private lives. The agreement on the European recovery package in summer 2020 and mutual support during the ongoing energy crisis, on the other hand, symbolise the two countries’ capacity for action and the deep solidarity between them.
It could be that the late cancellation of government consultations last autumn came as a salutary shock – particularly on the German side, which is attributed a great deal of responsibility for the state of relations. Since then, Chancellor Scholz and President Macron have met several times. Deputy Chancellor Robert Habeck, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner travelled to Paris within days of each other.
These visits were significant as the apparent silence that had preceded them overshadowed the fact that relations at working level between ministries are intensive, frequent and built on a footing of trust. The Ministers of State responsible for Franco-German relations and Europe, Anna Lührmann and Laurence Boone respectively, are by all accounts in constant, almost daily, contact. Collaboration in the framework of civic partnerships and regions are well-oiled machines. At civil society level, meanwhile, there are countless functional networks, supported not least by the Franco-German Youth Office and the Franco-German Citizens’ Fund.
The tensions in the association, then, are just a blip and broad popular support for the relationship should be an alarm call to the highest levels of government to redefine their cooperation. For the joint challenges they face are immense. This is another area in which the results of the survey may provide a few pointers.
Restoring joint trust in democracy
Four out of 10 Germans and more than 50% of French respondents feel that democracy in their countries is not functioning properly. These are alarming figures, even though only a minority of the two populations consider democracy to be in actual danger.
Increasing violence and, in particular, growing inequality are seen as a threat in both societies. Almost 40% of respondents in Germany and France also consider that the highest political and economic echelons are not acting in the interests of the population. This leads to the impression that the people have their doubts as to whether democracy, in its current incarnation, can effectively tackle their personal concerns for their own futures, their fears of losing prosperity, of being tipped into poverty. While there is a lot of discussion at the moment on whether people are being “listened to”; the flip side of this is more over growing doubt as to whether democratic governments can solve their problems.
On both sides of the Rhine, reports of a lack of trust in democracy were notably higher the further respondents moved to the right of political centre. The figures were 74% in France and as high as 83% in Germany, indicating that populistic, far-right discourse is starting to rub off on people.
It also indicates that also in the framework of the Franco-German partnership, far-right extremism, disinformation and attacks on the rule of law and freedom of the media must be tackled head on and that governments must deliver on a political level, for the good of their own societies, but also for the stability of Europe. The German and French governments must therefore advocate more strongly than ever for compliance with the rule of law in the EU. With a growing number of right-wing governments in power, with Italy and Sweden the most recent examples of this, the elections to the European Parliament next year will be a litmus test for the democratic and pro-European majority in the EP.
Popular Franco-German support for the green transition
Finally, under the heading of the priority support for tackling the energy and climate crisis, in other words for a green transformation, there is an enormous mandate for Franco-German collaboration. The roll-out of renewable energies is the number-one priority in Germany, with 68% of respondents in support, and takes third place in France, with 49%. The energy-saving refurbishment of buildings and greener agriculture are perceived as equally important, with support from 51% of respondents in both countries.
More than 70% of French respondents support the expansion of renewable energies in France; this figure is 84% in Germany. There is considerable acceptance of wind farms, even near their own doorsteps. 80% of German and 66% of French respondents would agree to wind farms within a radius of 30 km – considerably more than half of the population.
The issue of nuclear energy, so hotly debated between the two countries, on the other hand, has far less backing. Only 37% are in favour of bolstering nuclear power in France, just 27% in Germany.
The mobility transition gives a more nuanced picture. Its success rises and falls with realistic and reliable alternatives to the car. The vast majority of participants, around 90%, are in favour of improving local public transport, including in rural areas, and long-distance rail travel. 80% of French and 76% of German respondents are in favour of banning short-haul flights when there is a practical rail alternative.
While 71% of the German population are in favour of phasing out internal combustion engines, this figure is just 51% in the less densely-populated France. It could be that concerns for personalised and flexible mobility are behind these figures, at least as long as public transport, both locally and over greater distances, is neither reliable nor affordable, or scepticism as to whether sufficient infrastructure for e-mobility is realistically possible in the foreseeable future.
The French and the Germans are divided over the question of who can best overcome the challenges of the ecological transformation. While a relative majority of 34% in Germany trusts the federal government to do this, 33% of the French believe that this will take a citizens’ movement. This figure may owe much to the fact that the citizens’ convention on climate protection, announced by President Macron to high expectations, has led to very little political action on the part of the government. The German relative majority is a leap of faith for the Traffic Light Coalition, but the French result also sends out a clear signal that expectations need to be met.
All in all, the results of the survey show clearly and unmistakeably that the citizens of France and Germany take very much the same view of the challenges of our time and that the similarities in their priority political issues are extraordinary. Extraordinary because the political traditions and systems are commonly seen as very different, as in energy or industrial policy, for instance. Yet the overlap in preferred solutions between the two banks of the Rhine are enormous. The Franco-German partnership must now bring all its institutional resources to bear and breathe new life into the much-needed EU reform process with joint initiatives.
No partnership is self-perpetuating: constant investment is required
A big anniversary, a ceremony and a government summit alone cannot overcome the current tensions in the Franco-German relationship. However, they can help to identify the problems and provide a festive occasion that may be the trigger to start doing things differently.
A top priority must be the acknowledgement that open exchange and confidential discussions beforehand are much more effective than crisis communications afterwards. A mutual understanding and empathy for each other’s challenges and specifics will go much further towards joint solutions than focusing on differences.
If the survey to mark the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty shows one thing, it is that the governments in Berlin and Paris have enormous support for their joint work and the citizens of both countries also have a clear compass, pointing to the areas in which this work merits intensification.
If the governments hope to secure a solid foundation of the Franco-German partnership and its positive contribution to Europe and its democracies for the long term, they must focus on improving opportunities for the coming generations – tackling climate change, supporting democratic freedoms and social cohesion.
Furthermore, they must make the Franco-German dialogue more inclusive. It must include all people in our pluralist societies, irrespective of social status and migration background. In this way, civil society too may make its contribution to the continuation of the partnership. This will be the starting point for all the work of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in this Franco-German diamond anniversary year.
This article was first published in German on fr.boell.org.