The New French Connection

The relationship between Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande got off to a rocky start. But the German and French political leaders have gradually reached a better understanding, restoring a sense of order and direction to the core of continental Europe.

Handelsblatt Global,  February 6, 2015

Paris had seemed a significant choice.

When Greek’s new rock star finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, chose the French capital for the first pit-stop on his whirlwind European tour last week, he may have hoped for more than a sympathetic ear for his leftist government’s crusade to cut Greece’s debt and end punishing austerity.

After all, only a few years ago, French President Francois Hollande had seemed poised to become the European standard bearer for those who opposed austerity and Germany’s dominance in the euro crisis.

Yet, last week, while French government officials said they would support Greece in its attempts to get a better bailout deal, Mr. Varoufakis was told there was no way Paris would actually back a debt writedown.

And despite his warm reception of the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, the day before, Mr. Hollande minced no words on Thursday, saying that the European Central Bank’s decision to cut off Greek banks’ access to funding in exchange for government bonds was “legitimate.”

“The French reaction to the Greek visitors was amazingly cautious,” said Jörg Haas, an economics expert at the Berlin office of the Jacques Delors Institute. It was clear, he said, that “France has no interest in a debt write off.”

In fact, after Mr. Varoufakis’ visit, his French counterpart, Michel Sapin, warned Greece against trying to drive a wedge between Paris against Berlin.

“There is no point in playing euro zone countries against each other, and especially not France and Germany” Mr. Sapin said. Any solution for Greece would “have to go through an agreement between France and Germany.”

It’s a sign that, while relations between Paris and Berlin certainly became frostier after Mr. Hollande’s election in 2012, and his center-left Parti Socialiste’s subsequent parliamentary victory, the French president has found a measure of common ground with Berlin these days.

 That was also apparent in the fact that the two countries are combining efforts to find a joint solution to the conflict in Ukraine. On Friday, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande travelled to Kiev and Moscow to try to broker a peace deal.

That trip followed similar visits to the region by the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius.

“The Germans are very interested in keeping the French on board.”

Olaf Boehnke, European Council on Foreign Relations

The countries are part of the so-called “Normandy Quartet,” along with Ukraine and Russia, which came together on the fringe of the 70thanniversary celebrations of the D-Day World War II landings last year.

“The Germans are very interested in keeping the French on board,” said Olaf Boehnke, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Usually you had the French taking care of the Mediterranean and the Germans Eastern Europe, but that is too one-sided,” Mr. Boehnke said. He added that there is now a tacit agreement between Paris and Berlin that they will jointly address issues in their respective backyards.

“The Germans and the French know they have to work together; both sides have reached this conclusion,” said Céline-Agathe Caro, an analyst with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a foundation with links to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

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