Date: 15 May 2020

The pandemic in context of French-German relations

With more than 150,000 confirmed cases, France and Germany are among the world’s top five largest coronavirus outbreaks. Yet French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are pursuing two drastically different policies. One of the fatal flaws between these two’s already strained ties is the lack of solidarity with the eurozone crisis. In an interview with The Warsaw Institute Review, Aleksandra Rybińska, a journalist, political scientist, and a Warsaw Institute expert on European affairs, discusses the current and future ties between Paris and Berlin.


Jarosław Walkowicz, Warsaw Institute Review: Could you please tell us how the pandemic crisis unfolded in France and Germany? Has the situation been changing and how do French and German officials handle it?

Aleksandra Rybińska: As for the coronavirus pandemic, there is a slew of differences between the eurozone’s two biggest economies. It would seem that Germany is dealing much better with the pandemic than France for a few reasons. Germany has a larger number of hospital beds, especially in the intensive care units, and boasts quality healthcare facilities. In Germany, the death rate of COVID-19 stands at 7 people per 100,000, compared to 33 in France. Notably, both France and Germany have introduced various restrictions to slow down the spread of the novel coronavirus. France imposed a nationwide lockdown on 17 March, thus earlier than Berlin that took a similar decision roughly a week later, on 22 March. And while Berlin edged toward an array of COVID-19 measures, these were much less stringent than on the Seine. The federal government held off a mask requirement nationwide, yet masks are mandatory in all of Germany’s federal states. Back in March, both France and Germany held local elections, with French voters turning out to vote in the first round in polling stations on 15 March, while Germany’s Bavaria eventually staged the two-round all-postal vote. In the aftermath, both countries saw the growth of the new coronavirus cases, but it was just in France that the jump could be linked to the municipal vote, and the authorities have been accused of jeopardizing the health and lives of individuals. Agnès Buzyn, France’s former health minister and a politician of Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party, said in an interview with Le Monde that both the president and government officials ignored threats that could be linked to the holding of vote and lied to the citizens of France. In France, health workers have complained about a lack of ventilators, masks, and protective equipment. In March, more than 600 French hospital doctors set up what they named as a “C–19” group and lodged a complaint against France’s Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe and government officials responsible to tackle the outbreak. French medics say that the authorities –– despite their “excellent knowledge” of potential threats arising from the spread of SARS-CoV2 –– failed to provide personal protective equipment, like masks, for two months. Lawsuits have been filed against France’s cabinet members to the Court of Justice of the Republic, a special jurisdiction established for high-ranking officials. Though the German authorities do not face such harsh criticism yet, in early March, shortly after he was lambasted for following WHO guidelines, the country’s health minister Jens Spahn said that there is no pandemic while those who think otherwise “sow panic.” In addition to their healthcare systems and current restrictions, French and German citizens remain disciplined to a different extent, as there are some in France that seem to ignore the ban on large public assemblies. Although residents of impoverished ghetto-like towns do not adhere to brand-new rules, the French state could do nothing about that, as any attempts to enforce compliance stir up tensions and lead to riots when people set fire to rubbish bins and cars, as well as attack law enforcement agents. Nevertheless, Germany and France continue to witness a decline in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.


What restrictions have been and are still put in place in Germany and France to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus?

France requires anyone to carry a signed form, either printed out or in digital form, anytime they are outside. The attestation form should contain basic data, including first and last name, address, place of birth, and a reason for being outside. French citizens are authorized to leave home to buy food or medicine, seek medical help, run errands, or support those in need. Going out to take the children or pets for a walk or for physical exercise must be within a distance of one kilometer maximum of one’s home and for no longer than an hour a day. Authorities in Paris have banned exercise outside during the day. On the flip side, there is no need to carry a special form in Germany nor do citizens need to abide by any time or space restrains. Nonetheless, mask-wearing is obligatory everywhere throughout Germany. Like other countries throughout Europe, France and Germany have closed non-essential businesses, like trade, tourism, or restaurants and cafes, as well as put through an array of measures, including a coronavirus-safe distance, bans on mass gatherings, and the closing of schools, kindergartens, and universities. Germany’s Constitutional Court has ruled that people in the country have the right to hold political protests if they adhere to physical distancing rules. This came in response to a lawsuit filed by activists who had petitioned the court, saying the lockdown measures breached their freedom of assembly.

Despite the above, both Paris and Berlin are wary of easing containment restrictions though these two are seeing a decline in the new cases –– as they remain fearful of a second wave of new cases that is likely to hit as early as in the fall, according to health specialists. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if the decision to loosen measures were taken too early, the country would have to reimpose constraints. Germany has been relaxing some of the coronavirus restrictions from 3 May onwards. Following a month-long closure, hairdresser’s and stores with a shop floor of up to 800 square meters may reopen while in some states, children will be allowed to come back to schools. According to Macron, the government is now facing the delicate task of rebooting the economy –– if this takes place too soon, “thousands will die”, and if too late –– the state will plunge into a billions-worth economic collapse. France would begin emerging from the lockdown on 11 May. What’s next? As for now, the country’s officials presented a 17-point priority plan for lifting lockdown measures. It includes the reopening of schools and offices, the functioning of public transport, regular supplies of masks and hand sanitizers as well as help offered to the elderly. Stores and shopping centers will follow in mid-May, yet cafes, cinemas, and cultural venues will remain closed. Any socializing in public spaces will be prohibited, too.

What reforms did Paris and Berlin push through to shield their economies from the coronavirus downturn?

Both countries have launched relief packages. In France, it covered 700,000 companies and as many as 9 million employees. Prime Minister Edouard Phillippe noted that during the nationwide lockdown, the country’s economic activity decreased by 36 percent on average, including by 43 percent in industry and by 88 percent in the construction sector, while hotels, restaurants, and cafes virtually ceased their activities. Meanwhile, France cannot just pay out salaries to millions of people for months, the official said. French Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the country would suffer the worst recession since 1945. Also, Paris is likely to witness a 7.6 percent budget deficit in crisis-hit 2020, while the national debt burden will reach 112 percent. Also, the government expected its crisis package to cost €100 billion, thus over 4 percent of GDP, and up from expectations of €45 billion less than some time before. The German parliament passed an aid package worth €750 billion to lessen the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy. The program contains a slew of tools to help businesses, the self-employed, and citizens to cushion the fallout from the pandemic. Also, German lawmakers adopted the draft amendment to the act on economic relations with foreign countries (Aussenwirtschafstgesetz, AWG). The aim is to prevent the “hostile” takeover of German companies that noted a drop in value during the pandemic by non-EU firms. Germany’s Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said the message was directed chiefly at hedge funds that might look to buy companies like Daimler or Lufthansa that are going to receive some state aid anyway. Some of the country’s federal states declared comparable “umbrella” schemes –– like in Bavaria whose authorities pledged to spend €20 billion to recover the local industry. Germany will not avoid the economic harm from the coronavirus, according to leading research centers and their latest analyses. Germany’s economic output would shrink by 4.2 percent, while the unemployment rate would rise to 5.9 percent at its peak, they said. Yet the next year may bring a fast recovery of the German economy, as shown in the analysis. Forecasts for Germany look more optimistic than those for France, as the latter’s national debt was sailing towards 100 percent of its gross domestic product even before the pandemic took a firm grip on the world. Also, France and Germany could at least partly nationalise some of the companies operating in both countries.


How did French and German societies respond to coronavirus measures?

In Germany, restrictions are few but they are clear-cut. And Germany is a pretty much disciplined nation. The key to curb the further spread of the virus is to follow social distancing rules and wear face masks, and people seem to stick to these regulations. This, of course, does not mean that all German citizens agree with the government’s policy. Germany’s constitutional court in the city of Karlsruhe saw lawsuits against coronavirus restrictions. Yet these were all rejected by the country’s top court. Nonetheless, the court partially upheld bids to demonstrate in public against the coronavirus restrictions invoking the nation’s right to freedom of assembly as laid out in the German constitution. Similar rallies took place also in the country’s capital, Berlin, while those who took to the streets were asked just to respect social distancing rules. Most people in France generally adhere to the confinement rules, yet those who fail to do so inhabit ghetto-like towns that ring major French cities. These are mainly foreign-born French residents, the majority of whom doubt the government’s legitimacy –– and thus disregard its recommendations. Besides, it is far more challenging to embrace social distancing rules in overpopulated social housing. In France, authorities have already issued 800,000 fines for breaches of quarantine, from a total of 13.5 million checks carried out.

And how do both states see EU proposals to fight the upcoming recession?

President Emmanuel Macron voiced support for a eurozone rescue plan suggested by the European Central Bank (ECB), saying this would prevent the “fragmentation” of the area. Yet according to Southern European states, with France at the helm, the European Central Bank’s €751 billion bond-buying program is far from being enough. Same was the case with a €500 billion package of measures to combat the economic fallout of the global coronavirus pandemic that eurozone finance ministers agreed to adopt at an 9 April meeting. It encapsulates three core elements: a joint employment insurance fund worth €100 billion, a European Investment Bank (EIB) instrument, as well as credit lines from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). This is yet a modest relief package whose range is insufficient. France was behind it, amidst the bloc’s poor chance of issuing joint debt, known as “coronabonds,” as argued by the EU’s southern member states. In it, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands voiced vocal criticism of any new kind of a joint debt mechanism as they insisted that each state be responsible for its own balance sheet.

As maintained, this would be a mistake to create liabilities that could even theoretically imperil credit ratings or result with unexpected guarantees. From a German perspective, any extra loans could do, but the debt-ridden southern economies cannot accept that –– as with this solution comes the growth in debt. They do not want to follow suit of Italy and make use of the EMS that was set up right after the 2008–2009 crisis and is still seen as a disciplinary tool that the bloc’s north yields to impose its agenda on their southern peers. Emmanuel Macron openly pledged to augment transfers between European countries at least temporarily during the crisis. EU nations are now in talks to create a recovery fund worth a total of a few billion euros. However, it is not clear where the money would come from, as nations are reluctant to pay more to the EU budget right when the bloc’s states are on the brink of a severe recession. Regardless, transfers have long been a bone of contention between Europe’s north and south, while the existing strains are likely to exacerbate as time and pandemic go by. Thus, France and Germany are now on opposite sides of the barricade. Notwithstanding of Macron’s leader-like pursuits, France is sailing toward the south’s stalemated economies while gradually drifting away from the north’s budgetary discipline.

Much is being said about two distinct visions of a united Europe –– this of France’s Macron and that of Germany’s Merkel. What are the main differences/points of contention?

As the French would say, rien ne va plus between Macron and Merkel. The German chancellor hindered roughly all reform initiatives set forth by the French leader –– be it regarding the eurozone or an idea to create a joint European army. She just shrugged her shoulders in response to Macron’s keynote speech he had delivered at the Sorbonne back in September 2017. The timing was wrong back then –– as Germany found itself in the very midst of the election campaign. And Merkel knew right then her current term would be her last. Berlin’s Europe, Macron said, turned into a somewhat conservative being. As Germany became more and more occupied with its matters at home, it no longer pretends to take the lead of the EU. Nor does Berlin deny that it prefers the status quo to fresh reforms and any efforts to intensify integration.

Berlin has grown weaker in many ways. It is incapable of taking decisions. Macron has apparently decided to make use of this. For over a year, he has attempted to take the reins by leveraging the EU in its ties with the United States, Russia, and China. Sometimes he delivers provocative comments –– like when he referred to NATO as braindead, while the other time he offers Vladimir Putin to coax Russia into integration, evoking a European security architecture “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” –– thus quoting de Gaulle’s idea –– just to head to China the next day in the search of billions-worth deals, yet with EU flags flying in the back. What Macron is doing right now is nothing but attempting a hegemon-like policy, with which Macron seeks to get France out of stalemate that has grappled the country for the past 20 years. Paris seeks further reforms within the EU because it is no longer dissatisfied with being a leader of a poor Europe –– and this is the role it is occupying. Germany is benefitting from what Europe looks like now, so why would it change it in any way? Of course, common debt instruments are always somewhere in the background.

Also, during his presidential campaign, Macron promised his fellow countrymen that he would alter the European Union so as it could serve France and not just Germany. France’s ties with Germany have soured into a mood of bitter disappointment since then, as Paris believes that the chancellor broke an unwritten agreement, with economic reforms in France coming first, followed by the deeper integration within the eurozone. Macron thinks he kept his side of the deal –– he pushed through unpopular reforms, paying a high political price. Throughout the whole year, the French leader had to appease yellow-vest protesters and then labor union members after he had pressed on with controversial pension reform. Anyway, he did not get what he wanted.


Late 2019 brought a visible “fatigue” in French-German ties. How do they look like now? Has the ongoing crisis made them any better?

The pandemic did not change much in the relationship between Paris and Berlin. Quite the opposite –– it widened an asymmetry gap between these them. Suffice it to recall these two’s rescue packages to alleviate the economic repercussions of the crisis. While Germany’s parliament approved a €750 billion aid package, French lawmakers adopted a €100 billion relief plan. According to the statistics shared by the Eurostat, Germany’s gross national debt was 60 percent as of late 2019, compared to roughly 100 percent in France. As a result, France could enter even deeper into the role of a crisis-stricken country that Emmanuel Macron so long tried to avoid.

The current situation looks in some ways worse than during the eurozone crisis. Saarland’s interior minister closed the border to France –– just if an arch enemy was just on the other side. The French daily Le Figaro reported that those who dared to arrive in the German region in March saw instances of “certain hostility.” Some were insulted or stopped on the street. Some French people had reported being spat on while out walking or queueing at the supermarket. There were reports of French people pelted with eggs too. German people near the border zone told the French to “go back to their corona-ridden country.” Such incidents occurred in a few towns in Germany’s Saarland. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned aggression towards French people traveling into border areas. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is often in talks with his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, while their closest associates –– roughly every single day. But this cooperation has no ambition, with no joint scheme on how to tackle the pandemic coming out of there. Germany has been trotting out that there is no question to the communitize national debts, while France keeps repeating –– like a mantra –– that it is vital to break the taboo around EU bonds. As long as the French-German asymmetry is lingering, nothing will change there.

What do you think about the future fate of the Merkel-Macron driving force both in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and France’s seemingly genuine rapprochement with Moscow? Does the Elysée Palace boast better ties with Moscow than Berlin?

The French-German driving force is basically gone, or at least it is seriously creaking. No one knows how harsh the coronavirus outcomes will be, but France is for sure going to get a worse blow than Germany. I do not augur a promising future for the Macron-Merkel duo –– as their states will see more like clashing interests rather than any coherent ones. In short, these two states differ in many ways, from their economic to military policies. Angela Merkel frequently invokes the schwäbische Hausfrau, or the thrifty Swabian housewife, as a top role model for state management while Macron –– as the French tradition goes –– spends money that he does not even have. And Berlin is not willing to see its taxpayers fund France’s nonchalance from their pockets. As for the eurozone’s structural flaws, it was known sometime before it was by no means an optimal currency area where transfers were a must. But Germany refuses to accept them, so the eurozone will be still bursting at the seams.

Macron exhibits a somewhat instrumental stance on his country’s ties with Russia. From a Parisian perspective, the global order is moving toward the U.S.-China bipolar axis. The French leader looks to keep track of the upcoming world game –– by searching for new allies, also in the Kremlin. This comes as a direct reference to what was named as the “French exception”, a legacy of Charles de Gaulle. In Macron’s eyes, France can only be strong if it follows the pathway of its own policy and maneuvers artfully between the United States, Russia, and China. Germany’s stance toward Russia has gone through a number of stages, ranging from a belief that Russia could become a democratic country if it built stronger ties with Western Europe (Berlin has abandoned this vision) to sheer pragmatism or, if preferred, even selfishness. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline allows Berlin to gain unlimited access to Russian-sourced gas that it seeks to use to win the competitiveness on the EU market and flood Central and Eastern Europe with energy commodity supplies. That is far from free-market rules; instead, Berlin makes use of interstate ties in the Kremlin-controlled industry. The Russia-to-Germany gas link first got a label of an economic venture that the German state had nothing to do with. Later on, it was depicted as a form of politics –– before finally morphing into a geostrategic undertaking that seeks to build a mightier Russia towards China. Paris and Berlin equal in this respect –– if Russia is not dragged towards the West, it is likely to become a bargaining chip in Beijing’s hands. “It is difficult to conclude whether it is France or Germany that has better relations with the Kremlin. The only certain thing is that Vladimir Putin probably knows how to take advantage of the overtures of these two to fulfill his own goals.”

Interview by Jarosław Walkowicz, The Warsaw Institute Review

Aleksandra Rybińska
– a political scientist and graduate of the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Institut d’études politiques de Paris). A Warsaw Institute expert on European affairs. Journalist at the website and the Polish weekly news magazine W Sieci, a member of the board of Maciej Rybiński Foundation. Earlier: Rzeczpospolita, Uważam Rze, Gazeta Polska Codziennie, Welt Am Sonntag, and Der Tagesspiegel.

All texts published by the Warsaw Institute Foundation may be disseminated on the condition that their origin is credited. Images may not be used without permission.

TAGS: migration crisis, NATO, Belarus, Russia


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