Franco-German Relations: A River Runs Through It

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


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

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.