While sharing a common border for centuries, France and Germany have always had deep differences going back even to the days before the two countries even existed. Julius Caesar had very different views of and experiences with the Gauls than he did with the German tribes on the other side of the Rhine. Charlemagne had trouble bridging the river, as did his sons. And, for hundreds of years, German and French blood spilled in a continuing set of wars back and forth across the Rhine.

That all changed after 1945, and today, the French and Germans are best friends. But. they still have—and indeed cultivate—their differences, whether it is about food, fashion, or foreign policy. One of the most obvious examples is the countries’ different approaches to nuclear power. While the French possess both nuclear energy and weapons, Germany wants none of the latter and just started pulling the plug on the former.

A further illustration was on display this week during French President Hollande’s visit to Washington. Among the many topics the two Presidents were to discuss was the recent flap over the NSA surveillance policies, which have caused much tension in Europe—particularly in German circles. While the initial reaction to revelations of alleged NSA snooping on French citizens was outrage, it seems to fade after the picture grew more complicated and after revelations of French security services also engaged in surveillance activities.

During the past six months it seems that Franco-American relations have been far less disturbed by the NSA controversy than those between Berlin and Washington. This week President Hollande essentially dismissed the whole issue at his joint press conference with President Obama stating things had been clarified and “trust was restored”—end of story.

So, how is it that the French appear to be so much less vexed by the NSA issue than the Germans? The first reflex in some circles might be to say that the French and Americans are equally engaged in snooping—both at home and abroad and they accept that it as a given among countries. But, there might be more to it than that.

On Surveillance…Vive la différence!

Over the next several months, there will be a large Parliamentary committee in Berlin looking into the NSA revelations with hearings, which will keep the issue on the front burner of the media at a minimum.

Yet, there does not seem to be a similar initiative in Paris.

The German Federal Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice has been exploring whether to proceed with a criminal investigation of NSA related activities on German soil. Similar calls had been made in Paris last summer, but not much has emerged since then.

Chancellor Merkel has been openly critical of NSA surveillance tactics over the past several months, most recently in the first policy speech of her third term to the Bundestag, when she stated that German, American, and British views are far apart on surveillance policies. The fact that this issue was included shows that it continues to stir up domestic irritations, which the Chancellor cannot ignore. Indeed the NSA affair was explicitly mentioned in the government coalition agreement.

Although Obama was as popular in France when he came into office as he was in Germany, that excitement has cooled down a bit since 2008 in both countries. But, it might be that the Germans are somewhat more alienated because they inflated their expectations of President Obama far more than the French. The Germans fault the President for failing to live up to the expectations they themselves had placed in him—let alone the accusation that he is not measuring up to the standards Americans professed to have. Poster signs include Guantanamo, drones, and of course the NSA snooping on German citizens and the Chancellor herself.

The French appear to be less outraged by these apparent inconsistencies. That might have something to do with their suspicions of their own government’s activities. But, it might also be shaped by a recognition of the choices faced by France, which still considers itself a global player.

The French liked the idea of going after Muammar Ghadaffi in 2011, and they said that were ready to go after Assad last summer. Hollande himself was hung out to dry when Obama decided against military intervention in Syria. The French were able to march into Mali, and the United States saluted them.

All of that was not very popular east of the Rhine. While the French share an inclination with Americans to flex their muscles on occasion, Germans find that a less attractive option. That of course did not keep Berlin from engaging with both allies in Afghanistan. Yet, the lessons being drawn from the Bundeswehr’s experiences in the past decade may not lead to similar conclusions and consequences.

There is another dimension to this Franco-German contrast —that being the character of their respective political systems. Where the German system is a highly diversified federalist system of power distribution, the French have a unitary government with a more centrist role in society.

The President of France and Chancellor of Germany are both powerful figures, but the practice of government in Germany requires a different calibration of power in coalition governments. The Chancellor also faces more levels of decision-making than might be the practice in Paris. Of course, much depends on the person in power. The political system set up in Germany after WWII drew on experiences which differ from those that informed the system of government in France, which evolved into a presidential paradigm shaped by its first President, Charles de Gaulle.

The result was that the French President, similar to the United States, is invested as Commander in Chief. In contrast, the Chancellor shares more responsibility for foreign policy with the Parliament, especially when it comes to the use of armed forces.

Change Has its Limits

The various differences across the Rhine are now part of the dance of politics on the European Union stage, where both style and substance intertwine to form an even more complicated mix of culturally idiosyncratic attitudes and behavior. This will be on further display later this Spring in the run up to the European Union elections across the continent and—still—in the UK.

Sometime in the coming weeks, when Chancellor Merkel is with the President in Washington at a press conference, she might get a question about the NSA affair. She will probably not respond the same way Hollande did. She will emphasize that there are efforts between her administration and Washington to secure the same privacy for Germans as for Americans The Chancellor will also stress that finding a balance between security and privacy remains difficult and, that the basis of all these efforts is trust. But, the Chancellor will not declare that the whole affair is now over and forgotten, as Hollande did. She cannot go further than her own domestic debate will permit. And, that domestic debate will be not be over.

Yet, that debate is about far more than the NSA. It is about Germany’s struggle with its own role and responsibilities on the global stage as well as the tools it is willing to employ. It is about the narrative among Germans concerning what lessons are to be drawn from the past, both recently as well as over decades. That is a process that cannot be forced easily—short of another major catharsis. Germans are still figuring out the legacies of both 1945 and the period immediately thereafter when it was the front line of the Cold War. It is full of self-examination, yet at the same time, it has made consistent efforts to say and demonstrate that it will engage where it thinks it can. The mantra after World War II was for a long time—never again and never alone. Germany was always looking to act in the web of its alliances, be it the EU, NATO, or a host of other networks in which it both engaged and lent support. That was West Germany’s formula after WWII and it stayed that way after unification. Helmut Kohl was clear that a united, bigger, and stronger Germany had to be even more enveloped in its web of integration within Europe in order to avoid frightening its neighbors.

That same thinking was what had led to various self-imposed constraints on the use of force and state power. Germany took it upon itself to to act as a model of decorum in both foreign and domestic affairs. That generated a tendency to see itself as a kind of “Morals Marshall” on occasion—reminding others of their own obligations.

So, we need to pick up Germans where they are in their debate—encouraging when possible, but not expecting them to transform themselves into the French. The Rhein is not the only thing that divides these two old countries

  • K Bledowski

    Jack Janes is on to something here.

    I don’t think the ‘Rhine divide’ emerged because “[the Germans] inflated their expectations of President Obama far more than the French”. The Germans are too smart to build their Weltanschauung on a single personality. “It is about Germany’s struggle with its own role and responsibilities on the global stage as well as the tools it is willing to employ.” That’s it.

    The French are far more accepting today of intelligence, surveillance, wars, and other dark sides of politics because they engaged in them all post-1945 to a far greater extent that the Germans. The French public agonized over the Suez Canal fiasco in 1956, then they had to swallow the Algerian trauma of 1962 before taking in the country’s walkout from military command of NATO four years later. And that doesn’t include countless small and larger mishaps of France’s engagement in Africa stretching over decades. By contrast, the Germans were passive takers of history, from the coal-and-steel accords of the 1950s imposed upon them, through the construction of the Wall in 1961, and on to the missile confrontations of the 1970s. One could even put up a claim (I do it reluctantly) that the EMU was foisted upon the Germans by outsiders. Yes, Ostpolitik was a genuinely German production, albeit with mixed marginal returns on invested effort (and certainly on invested money).

    The French understand that international politics is clear-as-mud and often driven by dark forces. The Germans, having rarely dirtied their hands in world affairs post-1945, live with a rose-tinted perspective, unvarnished by ambiguity. The NSA is all about ambiguity and so the French get it while the Germans don’t.

  • James D

    France and the United States have much more in common than one would think, considering the quest of both nations to remain militarily powerful. More direct connections can be made when you investigate French intervention into Africa in the past forty years with American intervention in Central and South America in the past forty years (and it gets even more eerie when you consider that the majority of these interventions were to prop up military dictators that serve French/American interests). Something to consider when the French dismiss the NSA scandal…they are used to aggressive actions from their own government and know that there isn’t much they can do about it – as the French say, “C’est la vie.”

    But by far the most interesting quote of this article is “Sometime in the coming weeks, when Chancellor Merkel is with the President in Washington at a press conference, she might get a question about the NSA affair. She will probably not respond the same way Hollande did. She will emphasize that there are efforts between her administration and Washington to secure the same privacy for Germans as for Americans.” Now, Merkel can demand the same privacy, but wouldn’t that be insufficient for the German people – if only because American citizens are spied on with the same ease as everyone else (potential terrorist or not) in their scope.

    If Merkel truly wanted to solidify the privacy of her people, I think a better approach would be to demand a re-emphasis of American civil and individual rights from the American government. This defense of freedom and liberty once made the United States respected, but has since dwindled amid Gitmo, NSA, drones, no formal declarations of war, Abu Ghraib etc. etc. etc. It should also be noted that the European Union has re appropriated these human/individual rights as their own “fundamental rights,” since the US clearly has no more claim to actually promoting the values we once stood for. Therefore, if the US is truly interested in acting more multilaterally (as Obama promised after the horribly unilateral policies of the Bush Administration), then they would naturally have to respect and acknowledge the big-time accusations coming from the largest economy (and perhaps most powerful) country in Europe. The Americans once stood up for Germany as their government was overrun by overzealous totalitarians who were spying on its citizens, unjustly throwing people in jail, and killing without a trial. Now, it is us who need the help of Germany to ensure that “national security” doesn’t equal a blank check coming at the expense of freedom.