The French president, Emmanuel Macron, hosted the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, for lunch on Wednesday as they sought to iron out significant differences on energy and defence that have weakened their relationship at a time of war in Ukraine.
Both leaders, whose countries are seen as the joint driving force of the European Union, made an effort to smile as Scholz emerged from his black Mercedes at the Élysée Palace to shake hands, but the German chancellor appeared to sidestep Macron’s attempts to put an arm around him.
The French government spokesperson Olivier Véran said the meeting showed that “this friendship remains alive”, after a cooling in relations led to the postponement of a joint French-German cabinet meeting. The French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, had called for a “reset” amid rifts over defence strategy, the energy crisis, relations with China and even fiscal policy.
The two richest and most influential members of the EU have previously navigated occasional tensions in their relationship. But they have never been so much at odds at such a crucial time for Europe, with Russia’s war in Ukraine threatening the stability of the bloc, and other member countries such as Poland and the Baltic states questioning the Paris-Berlin dominance.
French officials have briefed that while the centrist Macron and Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, texted each other every day, Macron has had far less contact with Scholz, who heads a liberal-left coalition.
When Germany unveiled a €200bn package last month to shield its industry and consumers from soaring energy prices, France was not notified beforehand, leaving Paris rattled and concerned about an unfair advantage for German companies and threats to the EU’s single market. Then Germany’s refusal to consider an EU-wide energy price cap in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine irritated Paris and other European capitals, who feared the effect on their energy costs.
There has also been frostiness since Scholz announced a historic boost to defence spending. Even though Germany is going on a massive spending spree to modernise its military in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is preferring to buy hardware such as new F-35 jets from across the Atlantic rather than from its neighbour. Given the urgency of the situation, government officials in Berlin say, quick delivery times have to take a priority over long-term industrial strategy.
France sees commitments to cooperate on defence procurement floundering, given Germany’s plans for a shared missile shield with other Nato nations using American equipment. Longer-term projects to jointly develop new fighter jets and tanks face reluctance from big arms companies.
The two countries have traditionally been brokers of compromise among the 27 members of the EU. But the German newspaper Die Welt said: “The Ukraine war has changed the disagreement between Germany and France at its core and thrown up the fundamental question of how far the two sides are still strategically compatible.”
Marie Krpata, a researcher on France and Germany at the French Institute of International Relations, said Macron’s credibility was at stake in repairing the Paris-Berlin relationship, particularly after the expectations created by Macron and Merkel’s 2020 agreement on a vast EU rescue fund to help European economies hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
“France sees itself as the political motor of the EU, where Germany is the economic motor,” she said. “Today Germany is being looked towards on energy, the economy and defence, so it is seeing its role grow.”
With Macron weakened on the domestic front after his centrist grouping lost its absolute majority in parliament in June elections, Krpata said: “Emmanuel Macron’s standing depends on the EU at the moment. He is weakened on internal politics so is trying to find his identity and profile through European action.”
The German opposition leader Friedrich Merz, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, accused Scholz of isolating Germany within Europe. “The federal government has put great strain on Franco-German relations over the last few months,” he told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. “The chancellor has to use his trip to get the Franco-German motor rolling again.”