Scholz and Macron seek to reset fraught relationship with big celebration

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PARIS/BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron will aim to reboot their problematic relations with a big ceremony on Sunday as shared frustration over a new U.S. law helps them overcome differences.

Paris and Berlin have been at odds in recent months over defense, energy and finances, as well as Scholz’s controversial €200 billion package for energy price relief, which was announced last fall without previously involving the French government. These tensions culminated in Macron snubbing Scholz by canceling, in an unprecedented manner, a planned press conference with the German leader in October.

Sunday’s Franco-German summit, which unites both cabinets as well as a group of parliamentarians from both countries in Paris, comes also amid growing pressure from Kyiv to provide Ukrainian forces with the means to fight back against Russia’s aggression. The Ukrainians want tanks, in particular Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks, but they have also called on France to send Leclerc tanks. 

“There are some major challenges in the defense and security sector, especially when it comes to the question of how we can reduce dependency on the United States,” said Anton Hofreiter, the chair of the German parliament’s European Affairs Committee.

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Yet, the politician from the Greens, one of the coalition partners of Scholz’s Social Democrats, also emphasized that Paris and Berlin had increasingly found common ground in recent months when it comes to responding to the U.S.’s multibillion-dollar green subsidy package that has raised fears of siphoning off investment from Europe. 

After having publicly fallen out last October, Scholz and Macron agreed on the need to respond to America’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) by pushing for more subsidies for EU industries and loosening state aid rules.

“I see the cooperation with France as a great chance,” Hofreiter said.

The gathering on Sunday takes place exactly 60 years after the signature of the Elysée treaty that Germany’s Konrad Adenauer and France’s Charles de Gaulle signed in 1962 to seal the reconciliation between the two countries after World War II. Macron and Scholz will make speeches at the Sorbonne University in front of several hundred MPs, before holding a joint cabinet meeting at the Elysée Palace. 

Patching up 

The disagreements between Paris and Berlin in recent months also appeared compounded by the obvious lack of personal affinity between the two leaders, in contrast to the public demonstrations of affection between Macron and Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel. 

“They don’t have the same temperament, nor the same history. They need to tame each,” said a French government adviser after a meeting late last year. But “the more they see each other, the better they understand each other,” he added. 

Ahead of Sunday’s summit, an Elysée Palace official indicated relations had improved between Scholz and Macron. 

“We were able to use the [time] to work on our big goals, to achieve the best possible impetus, particularly on the European stage. So I think we are there now,” said the official in a briefing with the press. 

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty images

Chantal Kopf, a German Green lawmaker dealing closely with Franco-German relations noted that Sunday’s celebration comes just a few days after France signed an extensive partnership deal with its southern neighbor, Spain, which copies many elements of the Franco-German treaty.

“This should be seen by us as a clear signal that France wants more and closer cooperation and is also looking for other partners to take a leading role in Europe,” Kopf said.

She also had a poke at Scholz’s ruling coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, which often takes a long time to decide joint positions. “We as the German government must also act with more clarity and unity in decisions at the European level, in order to be able to coordinate with our closest partner France in good time,” Kopf said.

France has been seeking to convince its neighbor to back its plans for a robust response to the U.S.’s IRA and support the creation of a sovereign fund and the loosening of EU rules on government subsidies. In a non-paper submitted to the European Commission, France called for the EU to forge ahead with a “robust and rapid” Made in Europe strategy.

While Scholz and Macron both want the EU to temporarily relax state subsidy rules to allow faster investments in strategic areas, France also wants the creation of an EU sovereign fund to finance investments across the Continent. The fund would be partially financed with money from existing programs. 

However Berlin fears this would open the door to contracting more EU debt, which it firmly opposes.

In the last days ahead of the summit, officials were still striving to get both parties to agree on the wording of their joint statement.  

But a senior German official struck an optimistic tone ahead of Sunday: “I firmly believe that we will find very good results that will create a strong momentum,” he said. 

Sunday vibe

But some last-minute difficulties may mar Macron’s staging of the rekindling of the Franco-German friendship. Though the Elysée Palace has announced that 300 German and French MPs would gather to listen to the leaders at the Sorbonne, the tally wasn’t quite there on Friday. While over 120 German lawmakers have traveled to Paris to attend the meeting, only 71 French MPs have said they will turn up, according to a National Assembly roll call. 

“It’s on a Sunday, which is a pain for both the French and the Germans, but it is also a season when [French] lawmakers tend to attend local new year’s ceremonies in their constituencies,” said a French official working at the National Assembly. 

“So we are doing the rounds and drumming up support,” he added. 

If confirmed, the lack of enthusiasm from French MPs would be an embarrassment for the French government, after Paris signaled its disapproval in October when they learned that several German ministers were planning to skip a planned joint cabinet meeting. 

For the 55th anniversary of the Elysée treaty, France also put up a poor showing compared to Germany. The French National Assembly was three-quarters empty for the celebrations, while the French were welcomed by Merkel and a full house in Berlin.