Open Europe Blog

Who wears the trousers?

On Friday Le Monde got a big scoop with the news that French President Hollande’s Socialist party had drafted a strongly worded paper criticising Angela Merkel and her focus on austerity, accusing her amongst other things of “selfish intransigence”. It’s not exactly news that all was not well with the ‘Franco-German motor’ but still pretty explosive stuff and we were keenly anticipating what the German response would be. 

However, even taking into account the number of caveats (not an official policy document etc.) this reaction was pretty muted, both in terms of the media and politicians (in contrast the story was still on the front page of Le Figaro today). Most of the main German papers ran the story online, only setting out the basic facts (e.g. HandelsblattSüddeutsche, Tagesspiegel), and noting it represented a struggle between moderates and radicals within the party. However the Welt write-up included a bit of editorial comment:

“As unemployment in France rises ever higher, just like the budget deficit, while President Francois Hollande’s popularity falls ever lower, the breakout attempts of the governing socialists become increasingly desperate.” 

Bild, which normally isn’t shy of stirring up controversy looks to have completely ignored the issue at least online – although it did strike back by reporting on a French comic strip mocking Hollande. FAZ, which can usually be relied upon to come down like a ton of bricks on anything smacking of fiscal irresponsibility, also didn’t give the story that much coverage, although its co-publisher Günther Nonnenmacher had a rather wistful piece in which he claimed that that it was symptomatic of the way Germany was becoming increasingly isolated in Europe. This was also the tone adopted by two retired SPD politicians who had a guest piece in Süddeutsche in which they argued that:

“There are markers that some German will react [to this foreign criticism] as was standard in the days of the Weimar republic. We may fall into a spiral of snivelling self-indulgence and coming increasingly into conflict with a justified criticism from outside. Instead let us try to understand why others are reacting how they are reacting.”

Likewise the response from politicians was quite muted, with few senior coalition politicians speaking out although the SPD’s former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused Merkel herself of having strained Franco-German relations.

So what does this tell us? Well clearly the German media and politicians are unusually introspective and cautious not to stir a nationalistic argument, but that’s hardly news. More interestingly is the degree of relative indifference.

This speaks volumes about the changing power balance between the two countries.

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