Throughout the Cold War, Germany was the steadfast trans-Atlantic ally - and France the perpetual skeptic. Paris snubbed NATO, booted allied soldiers off its soil and sought a privileged relationship with Moscow.
Then one night the Berlin Wall fell - and 20 years later, the
roles subtly have shifted.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to be a NATO
stalwart, bringing his country back into the alliance's military
command structure earlier this year. As a result, France received
two NATO command posts.
At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel - while
reaching out to the United States - is pursuing closer ties with
Russia that have left Washington unsettled.
This evolution in France and Germany's relationships with the
Cold War superpowers is altering the shape of their own
relationship, which both countries long considered the "motor" of
the European Union. Sarkozy and Merkel will send yet another
powerful sign of their countries' friendship Wednesday at the Arc
de Triomphe, when for the first time French and German leaders
jointly mark the anniversary of the Nov. 11 armistice that ended
World War I.
Symbols aside, as much as Sarkozy and Merkel might like to
emphasize the privileged nature of the Franco-German couple, ties
between the countries are no longer what they used to be - and
pushing the restart button over and over again does not guarantee a
"Both sides' sense of the relationship has been lost," said
Josef Janning, senior director of the Bertelsmann Foundation. The
two countries used to be at "the core of bargaining" in the
European Union, but "currently, nobody really knows what the
purpose" of the relationship is, Janning said.
Germany and France spent the decades after World War II in a
long, painful period of "reconciliation" as Germany atoned for
the Holocaust and its occupation of France. After the Berlin Wall
came down, Germany found it had to atone yet again, this time with
Poland and Russia, both of which suffered greatly under Nazi invasions.
Despite deep historical wariness all around, Poland and Russia
also offered tremendous economic and even diplomatic opportunities
for Germany to expand its influence eastward and thereby reduced
Berlin's need to rely only on Paris as its major partner on the
In her first speech Wednesday to the German parliament since
winning a second term as chancellor, Merkel said she wanted to
pursue a broad security dialogue with Russia. She did not mention
France or the Franco-German relationship in the speech.
Germany's determination to make its relationship with Russia a
top priority took off under Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard
Schroeder, who made a strategic decision to tether his nation
firmly to Russia's immense energy wealth.
Unlike Schroeder, Merkel has avoided fawning on Russia: She has
moved to improve relations with Poland and has pledged to stand
shoulder to shoulder with the United States in Afghanistan. But she
has continued to deepen ties with Moscow through business and
Conscious of its slipping profile in Germany, the French
government in recent months has multiplied efforts to revive the
relationship. The courtship includes high-profile political
gestures, as well as numerous conferences devoted to the
In July, a new Franco-German military brigade marched down the
Champs-Elysees on Bastille Day with Sarkozy looking on. The French
Foreign Ministry on Monday spearheaded a huge light show and
concert on the Place de la Concorde, celebrations billed as a
"present" to the German people on the 20th anniversary of the
Berlin Wall's fall. And on Wednesday, Merkel joins Sarkozy to
commemorate the 91st anniversary of the armistice.
In the long run, however, in the absence of concrete steps to
reassert joint French-German leadership in Europe, these gestures
may not have great meaning.
"If you kiss," Janning said, "it doesn't mean that much
because it is part of the in and out of global diplomacy."
While France loves the big gestures, the Germans are in a
pragmatic mood these days, French-German specialists say.
It shows in some of the business deals Germany has struck in
Earlier this year, German industrial conglomerate giant Siemens
pulled out of a nuclear power plant joint venture with France's
Areva and then turned around to engage in talks on forming a
nuclear energy venture with Russia's Rosatom. Siemens built the new
high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg for a line
expected to open later this year.
"The style fundamentally has changed," Hans Stark, who chairs
research into France and Germany at the French Institute for
International Affairs, told a gathering of diplomats, analysts and
journalists this week.
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