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24 September 2021

What does France want from the 2021 German election?

Paris fears that prolonged coalition talks could leave Germany without a designated government for months.

By Ido Vock

One of French president Emmanuel Macron’s biggest diplomatic and personal victories has arguably been convincing Angela Merkel, in May 2020, to accept the principle of mutualised debt between EU member states in order to finance the recovery from coronavirus. Once the German chancellor had agreed to the plan, reversing her previous opposition to “eurobonds”, it was only a matter of months before the EU adopted the scheme.

Especially since Brexit came into effect at the beginning of 2021, France views its relationship with Germany – romantically termed the couple franco-allemand by the French – as a key force in Europe. In the EU, it can take a lot to block initiatives with the combined weight of the Union’s two largest economies behind them. Accordingly, as France prepares for its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union, which begins on 1 January 2022, it wants a government in Berlin it can work with. 

Macron may not get his wish, however. Current polls for Sunday’s German federal election point to the two main parties, the centre-right CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD, receiving one of the lowest combined shares of the vote in Germany’s postwar history. Such a result could mean prolonged coalition talks and a possible three-part coalition government, the first for over 60 years.

The fear in Paris is that extended coalition talks could leave Germany without a designated government for months, with Merkel as a caretaker leader. Negotiations to form a government lasted nearly five months after the last election in 2017, resulting in Merkel’s CDU/CSU forming a coalition with the SPD. Paris would not be able to rely on a lame-duck government to support the initiatives it seeks to promote with its EU Council presidency while talks continue.

“Paris is worried about how long it will take for Germany to have a functioning government,” said Sébastien Maillard, the director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. “France needs Germany as a partner if it wants its agenda for its EU Council presidency to succeed.”

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That agenda might include further progress on decarbonisation in the wake of November’s Cop26 climate summit, eurozone reform and migration. Germany and France do not always see eye to eye on every issue: Berlin favours carbon pricing, while Paris would rather see a carbon border tax, for instance. Still, Macron needs an official German government of one stripe or another in order to negotiate.

The French president has broadly positive views of the three main candidates for chancellor, the CDU’s Armin Laschet, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, Maillard said. Paris could probably work effectively with either Laschet – a francophone – or Scholz, both seen as good Europeans. Tensions between the two countries might be slightly less evident under the SPD leader, who is more open to looser fiscal rules and the deeper European integration favoured in Paris.

Foreign policy is one major sticking point. Laschet’s well-documented dovishness towards Russia and China does not play well in Paris, which pleads for dialogue with Moscow and Beijing while warning against excessive accommodation with Europe’s authoritarian competitors. 

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Perhaps surprisingly, the party leader whom Macron’s government reportedly views most favourably is Baerbock, the Green. Her strong foreign policy stances, particularly towards Russia and China, play well with the French. Her party has been slipping in the polls, however, suggesting she is unlikely to play more than a junior role in government.

By contrast, the mainstream candidate for chancellor whom Paris is least open to is Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal-conservative FDP, despite the FDP being affiliated to the same Renew party grouping in the EU Parliament as Macron’s La République en Marche. Tensions revolve, especially, around the FDP’s uncompromising position on public spending. That reflects the shifting nature of European politics, where nominal partisan loyalties are becoming less significant as voters increasingly show a willingness to abandon traditionally dominant parties.

How Franco-German relations evolve will depend on more than just who replaces Merkel as chancellor; which parties are picked to head individual ministries could also have an impact. That the FDP’s participation is required in many of the most likely coalitions, including an SPD-led “traffic light” government or a “Jamaica” formation headed by the CDU/CSU, rings alarm bells in Paris.

Lindner, who is known to be angling to lead the powerful finance ministry, could stymie French designs on further European fiscal integration. (In 2017, Macron is reported to have said he would be “dead” if Merkel formed a coalition with the FDP.)

Still, there are reasons for Macron to be in good spirits. Though the French president is facing a tough re-election fight in elections due in April 2022, the imminent departure of Merkel, unquestionably the EU’s most powerful leader, means that he will shortly become Europe’s de facto elder statesman. If he wins re-election – still the most likely outcome, though not guaranteed – he might be in a better position to help shape Europe in his image than at any point since coming to power in 2017.

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