France and Germany: a cooling of relations?

Claude Bartolone, the Socialist President of the National Assembly recently made an incendiary comment in which he voiced his belief that France should engage in ‘confrontation’ with Germany over the tight austerity measures it is favor of.  This remark seems to have also been supported by some of the left wing of the Socialist Party.

The Socialist party released a document on Europe on Friday which was highly critical of Merkel, citing her ‘selfish inflexibility,’ and branding her as the ‘Chancellor of Austerity.’ There were instantly attempts of appeasement from others on the left, as these remarks seemed to go far beyond the ‘friendly tension’ that Hollande had talked about at the end of March.  Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, instantly tweeted (in French and in German) platitudes about the warm relationship that France has with Germany. An Elysée spokesperson said on Friday that France had no ambitions to become the ‘ambassador’ of the Southern European countries currently struggling, as there wasn’t much future in the role. Nevertheless, this couldn’t help but make clear the resentment felt at the policies being dictated from Berlin, the only remaining power house in the Eurozone. Interestingly, there is an echo of this in Germany, as Liberation reports that the head of the German Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, recently lambasted Merkel’s economic policy, claiming that she was leading Europe towards ‘anorexia.’

In the context of soaring unemployment rates and the government’s failure to reach its target of reducing its public deficit to 3% of France’s GDP, Bartolone’s remarks instantly sparked debate as the relationship between France and Germany, the two largest economies in the Eurozone, is seen as a crucial factor in an eventual economic recovery. One of the most senior figures on the French right, Alain Juppé, gave an interview to Le Monde this weekend in which he stated his belief that the trust between France and Germany was broken, and that any estrangement with Germany would put France in ‘mortal peril,’ given that if France doesn’t make a conscious effort to reduce its deficit, interest levels will rise and any possibility of being able to politically manoeuvre within the Eurozone in relation to economic measures will be lost. He added that Hollande was making Germany the ‘scapegoat’ for his own political and economic failures. All the while Hollande continues to argue that the only way to regain political credibility is to balance the books.

Juppé belives that Hollande has completely isolated France, and, worse, put himself in the position of having to reduce the public deficit without much prospect of growth. For him, the only solution is the reduction of public spending. In other words, austerity, a word Hollande has scrupulously avoided up until now.

***Interestingly, Le Monde later on today has reported an interview that Benoit Hamon, minister of social and consumer affairs, gave to the Guardian on Friday. So while the Guardian reported tensions within the French government on Friday, Le Monde had been focusing up until now on the comments found within the Socialist Party document, not on comments made abroad. Hamon clearly linked the high levels of unemployment and failing economy to the austerity politics dictated from Berlin, and stated his belief that France needed to bite the bullet and separate itself from Germany in order to start on the path to economic recovery. Why were these comments given to a foreign newspaper, instead of a national one?

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