The reactions to the attacks in Paris have demonstrated the special character of the German-French relationship—but how far does this friendship go?
The attacks in Paris have resulted in an outpouring of solidarity across the world. The shock has been felt particularly profoundly in Germany, France’s closest neighbor. Angela Merkel, not known for emotional speeches, delivered a moving address the day immediately after the attacks: “We, the German friends, feel so close to you. We cry with you. Together with you, we will lead the fight against those who have done something so unimaginable to you.” It is not only particularly shocking because of the number of victims, among them two Germans, and the brutality of the attack. What happened in Paris also has a tragic German-French dimension to it.
French president Francois Hollande and German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attended the German-French football match—the actual target of the suicide bombers—together and to honor French volunteers who helped salvage the wreckage of the Germanwings crash in the French alps. This crash was the latest example of the remarkably close cooperation between the two countries: The salvage and investigation has proceeded as smoothly and transparently as one could have wished for, and both governments have demonstrated solidarity and unity. On the day of the attacks, an agreement for even closer cooperation between the French and German crisis units had been signed. Just compare this with the investigation of the Smolensk airplane crash in 2010: Poland is now considering suing Russia for withholding the wreckage.
Crisis management is certainly not the only example of the close bond between France and Germany. Together they are Europe’s economic engine, two of the founding fathers of the European Union, and are more closely intertwined than any other two countries on the continent. Regular consultations take place between the entire cabinets of both governments. France is the country that German officials contact first, far ahead of Poland and the United Kingdom. For young German and French diplomats, it is an integral and mandatory part of their curriculum to meet their counterparts in exchanges during their training. The Franco-German Youth Office has reached over 8 million young citizens through exchange programs and intercultural encounters since its founding in 1963. France and Germany are the most important trading partners for each other. The list of further examples is long.
This is of course the result of a historical lesson: After three wars that were fought against each other in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reconciliation became a strategic priority for both countries. A statue in the Berlin Tiergarten, depicting Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer holding hands, reminds passers-by of this historical achievement. But the German-French friendship has also in recent years had a very personal dimension, which made the events in Paris so shocking for many Germans. The centralized train system allows everyone, from Erasmus student to businessman, to pass through Paris when travelling to France—the city is and has always been a magnet for many Germans. After the Germanwings crash, the Paris attacks prove once again that friendship and reconciliation between countries matters. If there is one thing you can rely on in these troubled times for Europe, it is the strong and deep bond between the French and the Germans. The political question now is what France expects in return for the pledges of solidarity, in particular from its close neighbor Germany.
Instead of calling on NATO, Hollande has evoked for the first time the EU mutual defense clause, article 42.7, which states that other member states are obliged to provide aid and assistance in a case of armed attack by all means in their power—however, without prejudicing the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain member states. In short, it is up to each member state to decide which instruments of aid and assistance it will provide.
It seems unlikely that Germany will engage in a military campaign in Syria, beyond the weapons assistance it provides to the Kurdish Peshmerga. However, the pressure to do more than business as usual—which has thus far included diplomacy, in particular the Vienna talks, and taking in refugees—might increase. France considers itself at war, and the French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian already complained that France can not be in the Sahel, Central Africa, and Lebanon at the same time while fighting IS in Syria. Former prime minister Alain Juppé also commented that France feels alone in its engagement to keep crisis-ridden countries in Africa and the Middle East stable.
The UK has come back on stage with the announcement that it will consider an extension of UK military action in Syria, which takes the pressure off Germany. But in as much as Merkel was supported by Hollande in her leadership toward the East during the Ukraine conflict, France will expect German support for its leadership toward Africa and the Middle East. Would Michel hence go to war for Marianne? Not for now. Is war the right answer to what happened in Paris? That question is still up for debate. Also, Syria and the Islamic State are in all likelihood not the last problems Merkel and Hollande have to tackle together in the remaining 18 months of their common incumbency: The debate about the renewal of sanctions toward Russia is just around the corner, as well as the question of refugees and border control in the Schengen area. Against this background, the German-French friendship will remain the indispensable coalition in Europe.
Lily Gardner Feldman, Germany’s Foreign Policy of Reconciliation: From Enmity to Amity, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.
Josef Janning, Almut Möller, (Re-)Building Coalitions: The Role and Potential of Member States in Shaping the Future of the EU, DGAPAnalyse, December 2014.