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French Complain of Germany's 'Political Infidelity'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves to French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of a press conference following German-French Security Council video talks in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 5, 2021.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel waves to French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of a press conference following German-French Security Council video talks in Berlin, Germany, Feb. 5, 2021.

"Thirty years of infidelity" is how France's current affairs magazine Marianne describes Germany's relationship with France. An issue this month was devoted to how Germany has been "fleecing France" for years.

Marianne isn't alone in fulminating against Germany. French frustrations with Germany appear to be mounting, judging by French media criticism of its European neighbor.

Conservative magazine, Valuers Acteulles, last month dubbed Germany the "tyrant of Europe" and accused Berlin of always putting its own interests above those of the European Union as a whole. It identified Germany as the real driver behind the signing in December of an EU-China agreement that caused unease in Washington and attracted widespread criticism in France.

It is all a far cry from January 2019, when French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel signed a friendship treaty in Aachen, with the two leaders saying they would deepen cooperation in foreign affairs, defense, development and security.

The location for the signing was deeply symbolic and designed to send a strong signal. Aachen was the capital of Charlemagne's Frankish empire, which encompassed the territory of most of the EU's six founding members. For commentators, the message was clear: with Britain's departure from the EU, the treaty was meant to underscore that France and Germany remained at the heart of the European project and its true leaders.

A poll a year later found that Merkel was popular with 62% of the French. Eighty percent of respondents said they had a "good image" of Germany.

But since that show of unity the two countries have been increasingly at loggerheads on a range of key issues. Both Merkel and Macron and their officials are restrained in openly criticizing each other and have largely avoided public spats, say analysts. But that didn't stop Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer from clashing last year when the French leader sharply criticized her for an op-ed arguing "Europe still needs America."

Paris and Berlin have been at odds over the 2015 migrant crisis, the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany, and over how best to contain Turkey in its quarrel with Greece about the territorial status of eastern Mediterranean waters and the ownership of the oil and gas reserves beneath them.

Last year, France joined other Western powers in dispatching warships to the Mediterranean to assist Greece in standoff with Turkey. Germany held back, prompting Le Figaro newspaper to comment, "Germany is at once the captain and a player who scores against its own side when it's in its interest."

French officials also express privately their frustration with their irritation focused on Germany's reluctance to engage in military interventions or even consider doing so. "German reticence is less and less accepted and understood," according to analyst Paul Maurice of the French Institute of International Relations. "There are many reasons, including historical ones, for Germany's unease about military deployments abroad," he wrote in a recent report.

An appeal Tuesday by Kramp-Karrenbauer for closer bilateral security cooperation between Germany and France prompted irritation in Paris. Kramp-Karrenbauer said France and Germany needed to improve their coordination because of the Russian "threat," the rise of China and "Islamist terrorism" in the Sahel region.

"We have not dragged our feet on those threats," a French official told VOA. "We are the most active of all European states in the Sahel and have asked for more assistance from our European partners," he added. Since 2014 France has maintained an anti-insurgent operation, known as Operation Barkhane, involving a 5,000-strong French force, which is permanently headquartered in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad.

Some of the French frustration is put down by analysts to jealousy and a widening economic divide between Germany and France. In 1980 France's GDP per capita was 5% lower than Germany's; now it is 13% lower. Marianne blames that partly on the euro, which has become, it says, a "lever of commercial domination in the service of Germany."

For Macron the EU-China deal is becoming a domestic political headache. He supported the agreement after strong German lobbying despite the qualms of Italy, Belgium, Spain and Poland.

The French leader has come under attack from figures on both the left and right of the French political spectrum for doing so. He is struggling to sell the deal to the French.

Critics say the deal will give China preferential access to European markets while Beijing continues to tamp down Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and maintain detention centers in Xinjiang province, where China's Communist government has interned more than a million Uighurs, according to rights groups.

Raphaël Glucksmann, a Socialist lawmaker in the European Parliament, has criticized the deal, calling it rushed because of Berlin's determination "to please large companies that have relocated to China." Broader EU interests should have primacy "over that of the shareholders of Volkswagen and others," he tweeted.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has seen her poll ratings climb in recent weeks, is also questioning the deal.