French-German ties under strain as countries mark 60-year friendship

Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a changing world order are straining ties between France and Germany as they prepare to celebrate 60 years since a post-World War II treaty sealed their reconciliation.

French-German ties under strain as countries mark 60-year friendship
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected in Paris on January 22nd to meet President Emmanuel Macron before the pair lead a joint cabinet meeting to mark the Elysee Treaty signed on January 22nd, 1963.

But the two leaders’ relationship is seen as cordial at best.

“Scholz isn’t very European at all, he’s much more ‘Germany first’,” a senior member of Macron’s Renaissance party, who asked not to be named, told reporters this week.

In Paris there’s an impression of German “disinterest in the French-German relationship”, said Jacob Ross, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

The frictions are even being felt by the public, with 36 percent of French respondents and 39 percent of Germans telling pollster Ipsos this week that relations were suffering.

Cabbage and Christmas: What the French and Germans really think of each other

But the legacy of the 1963 treaty – signed in Paris by post-World War II leaders Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle – remains strong on everything from military cooperation to youth exchanges.

And a vast majority in both countries believe French-German unity is vital for the European Union.

Macron’s first term from 2017 was marked by a charm offensive, as the centrist leader tried to restore French economic credibility with Berlin and Brussels through sometimes painful and unpopular reforms.

Eventually his warm ties with Scholz’s predecessor Angela Merkel helped secure the unprecedented European response to the coronavirus crisis.

A more confident Macron has also been cultivating other European partners, signing bilateral treaties with Italy and Greece in 2021 and another this week with Spain.

“If it’s difficult with Germany right now, and not moving forward as he might hope, then he’ll try to find alternative partners,” Ross said.

Ukraine invasion

Differences between France and Germany have bubbled to the surface since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

Both were initially reluctant to alienate Russia, Germany’s top supplier of natural gas which France had seen as a key global power player.

But as the war’s toll mounted, France sent powerful mobile artillery to Ukraine ahead of the Germans last April and this month announced supplies of light tanks before Washington and Berlin decided to send infantry fighting vehicles.

The head of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) Lars Klingbeil complained to the Die Zeit newspaper last week that the signal “would certainly have been even stronger if all three countries announced their decision at the same time.”

Like Britain and Poland, France is pushing Berlin to deliver modern Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv, or at least to allow re-export of the German model widely sold abroad.

Many observers expected German-French plans to cooperate on next-generation tanks and fighter jets to gain urgency after the war prompted Scholz to declare a “new era” in defence policy.

But “even under the pressure of the events in Ukraine, apparently there isn’t much movement” with contracts for the next stage of tank development still unsigned, researcher Ross said.

France has also been cut out of a German-led European missile defence programme dubbed Sky Shield, expected to use German- and US-made equipment rather than Italian or French alternatives.

In part, the gulf has arisen out of the two nations’ different strategic outlooks.

With its independent nuclear deterrent and seat on the UN Security Council, parts of the French elite still think of the country as “a major power, maybe a medium-sized one, but still on a level with the other members” at the top table, Ross said.

Germany, by contrast, has largely been happy to leave geopolitics to others under the protection of the United States, which still has nuclear weapons and almost 40,000 soldiers stationed on German soil.


For Berlin, “things have got very complicated because Germany’s economic and political model is being put to the test,” said Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, a former French ambassador to Berlin.

In particular, any move by China to ape Russia’s grab for Ukraine in Taiwan would blast Germany’s second vital great-power trading relationship, with some in Berlin now pushing to diversify the country’s foreign markets.

“We have to become aware that … the time may come when China oversteps its bounds,” SPD leader Klingbeil told Die Zeit.

Closer to home, Germany’s European partners are trying to show Berlin that it can’t throw its economic weight around as it used to.

Last year, France and other neighbours kicked up a fuss fearing Germany’s €200 billion bid to subsidise energy costs for its consumers would crowd them out of the market.

Perhaps most troublingly “the relationship has become less real” for ordinary French and Germans, said Gourdault-Montagne, and “lost some of its emotion”.

Ever-fewer people in each country are studying the other’s language, Ross pointed out.

“In 10, 15 or 20 years… fewer people will be in a position to develop deep understanding of the partner country,” he warned.

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What does Monday’s no-confidence vote mean for Macron and for France?

The French government on Monday faces a vote of no confidence - so what does this mean and is it as dramatic as it sounds?

What does Monday's no-confidence vote mean for Macron and for France?

On Monday French prime minister Elisabeth Borne faces at least one vote of no confidence, following the decision of the French government to push through highly controversial pension reforms without allowing MPs a vote – using a constitutional process known as Article 49.3.

Here’s what will happen on Monday and what it all means.

Is a no-confidence vote unusual?

Not really, it’s the standard reaction to a government using Article 49.3. The constitutional article allows a government to push a bill through parliament and into law without allowing MPs a vote – there are, however some conditions.

The government can only use Article 49.3 once per parliamentary sessions on non-financial bills. It can be used an unlimited number of times on financial bills such as the budget. The other condition is that the bill becomes law, unless a majority of MPs in parliament support a vote of no-confidence in the government (known in French as a motion de censure).

What is Article 49.3 and how often do French politicians use it?

It has therefore become standard that every time a government uses Article 49.3, a vote of no-confidence follows. Elisabeth Borne has used Article 49.3 11 times since becoming Prime Minister in summer 2022, and each time it has been used at least one, often several, votes of no-confidence followed. None of the votes have passed.

Is this one different?

It could be. Previous votes of no-confidence against Borne’s government failed to pass because they were largely proposed by either the leftist Nupes alliance or the far-right Rassemblement National – respectively the largest opposition group and the largest opposition single party.

Bitter political enemies, the two generally refused to vote for each others’ bills, meaning the government easily defeated the motions.

The bill that everyone is watching on Monday is proposed by the small parliamentary group known as Liot – largely made up of MPs from France’s overseas territories and Corsican MPs. As a small political player containing both centre-left and centre-right politicians, it’s more likely that both the Leftist Nupes MPs and those from the far-right will back its vote.

However in order for the vote to succeed, it would likely also need the support of the centre-right Les Républicains party, which is much less certain.

What happens if it passes?

The no-confidence vote is against Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, so she would have to resign. 

However, this doesn’t bring down the whole government, prime ministers frequently get ‘resigned’ by the president and most French presidents have several different PMs over the course of their term of office.

READ ALSO What do French prime ministers actually do?

There’s nothing in the parliamentary process that forces an election after a successful vote of no-confidence, but president Emmanuel Macron has previously said that he will call new parliamentary elections if his prime minister is forced to resign. Calling an election remains his choice, however.

What about Macron?

In France the president and the parliament are elected separately. Macron won re-election in 2022 with a healthy majority (58.5 percent to 41.5 percent) and his term continues until 2027. 

While losing his prime minister would obviously leave him politically weakened and embarrassed, it does not oblige him to step down. 

The fresh elections that he can call are parliamentary elections – where he would be seeking a parliamentary majority for his centrist Ensemble alliance (at present his group is the largest, but does not have an overall majority, frequently leading to deadlock in parliament).

French presidents can continue in office even without a majority in parliament – in this case they are forced to appoint a prime minister from the largest party in parliament, a process known as cohabitation. Presidents Jacques Chirac and François Mitterand both spent at least part of their presidential terms in a cohabitation.

Who would benefit from new elections?

This is of course the big question, and one that’s very hard to predict. Most polling suggests a result similar to the previous elections, so fresh elections may not solve the problem of a deadlocked parliament at all.

However, polling suggests that the centre-right Les Républicains party would do badly. At present they can hold the balance of power in parliament – despite only having 61 MPs. 

Losing seats in a new election would reduce their power, which is why many analysts believe they will vote against Monday’s no-confidence vote, or at least abstain, allowing the current government to survive.