France state

Will France try to get ahead of Germany after Merkel leaves?


German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron attend an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels on July 18, 2020, as EU leaders hold their first face-to-face summit to face after economic bailout from the virus.

FRANCOIS LENOIR | AFP | Getty Images

When longtime and influential German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down after the country’s next federal election, many political experts will be keeping an eye on France.

This is because experts believe that France – and in particular President Emmanuel Macron – is waiting behind the scenes for an opportunity to try to replace Germany as the de facto leader of Europe and arguably, the superpower. of the region.

Macron will likely attempt to become the central figurehead of Europe once Merkel leaves, analysts say, and has positioned himself to do so for some time.

“As far as Macron is concerned, we are already seeing attempts to take leadership in Europe,” Carsten Brzeski, global head of macro at ING, told CNBC on Thursday.

He pointed to “Macron’s interventions when it comes to European debates on fiscal rules”. France called on the EU to relax rules on member states’ budget deficits and debt-to-GDP levels, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, while Germany has traditionally opposed any relaxation of the rules intended to restrict deficits and debt.

“Germany is currently too busy with itself to really care, but strong French leadership without a German counterbalance has hardly ever been appreciated in Berlin,” Brzeski noted.

One thing that could appease Germany, Brzeski noted, is that she knows Macron has his own presidential battles ahead, with a French presidential election slated for next April.

“This will leave less time for strong European leadership initiatives, even though France will take over the EU presidency next year,” Brzeski said.

“[I] suppose the real test case will come after the French elections, in case Macron is re-elected. We could then see a more powerful attempt to seize the European leadership. This gives any next German Chancellor about a year to put himself in Merkel’s shoes, “he said.

Who would Macron prefer?

Like the rest of Europe, France is closely following the progress of the electoral campaign in Germany and will have followed with interest the rise in popularity of the center-left Social Democratic Party.

The party’s candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is the current finance minister and vice-chancellor and, as such, is no stranger to the responsibilities of senior officials or other leaders in Europe.

Macron welcomed both Scholz and his rival Armin Laschet to the Elysee Palace in early September. The invitation to the candidate of the German Greens Annalena Baerbock was notably absent.

Analysts say Macron would likely prefer to work with Scholz rather than Laschet, the candidate put forward by the ruling conservative bloc CDU-CSU as Merkel’s successor.

“Among the two main candidates for chancellor, sources at the Elysee Palace suggest that Macron would be comfortable with either man, but has a slight preference for Scholz, who already has, as minister Federal Finance Office, worked closely with Paris on the revolutionary post of the EU -Covid Recovery Fund, ”Eurasia Group Mujtaba Rahman and Anna-Carina Hamker said in a note last week.

Economic weight

While Macron might find him compatible with the next German Chancellor when it comes to a common approach to EU policy, one area where France would struggle to match Germany is in terms of economic weight.

In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, nearly a quarter of the EU’s gross domestic product (24.7%) was generated by Germany, followed by France (17.4%) and the Italy (12.8%), ahead of Spain (8.9%) and the Netherlands (5.8%), according to Eurostat.

“Germany is Germany,” Naz Masraff, director of Europe at Eurasia Group, told CNBC on Thursday. “Even if France sees an opportunity, I don’t think you are going to see Germany’s role diminish. It may be less effective but I don’t think it will diminish.”

“Inevitably, Merkel will leave some really big shoes to fill after 16 years, but at the end of the day Germany is the key country in Europe and whoever the German finance minister, whoever the German chancellor is, will be. [leading] exactly that, ”she said.

Economists say the German economy is likely to remain competitive regardless of the leader of the government.

“Germany’s power and influence reflects the strength of its economy, the soundness of its public finances and its undisputed role as a financial anchor for the euro area,” Holger Schmieding, economist in the euro area, told CNBC on Thursday. chief at the Berenberg Bank. “Faces are changing, but that will remain under both Laschet and Scholz.”

“Under Macron, France is catching up well. But it is far from really catching up with the economic and financial power of Germany,” he said.

Brzeski agreed that if “initially everyone thinks Merkel is irreplaceable (…) given the economic weight of the country, any new chancellor will be important”.

“Maybe not at first but after a while,” he added.

Unpopularity contest

Macron is unlikely to benefit from the popularity rating of Merkel, a leader who leaves office of her own accord after 16 years.

Merkel has been seen as a stable pair of hands, bringing stability and consistency to the German (and European) political landscape despite various crises over the past decades, from the financial crash to the migration crisis.

According to a recent poll of 12 EU countries by the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, most Europeans polled were skeptical of Macron’s ability to match Merkel’s leadership skills.

French President Emmanuel Macron (2nd left) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) watch US President Donald Trump (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) walk past them during a photo family as part of the NATO summit at The Grove Hotel in Watford, north-east London on December 4, 2019.

Christian Hartman | AFP | Getty Images

When the ECFR asked respondents who they would vote for in a hypothetical contest between Merkel and Macron for the post of EU president, a majority of Europeans (41%) said they would vote for Merkel, and only 14% for Macron. The remaining 45% said they didn’t know or would not vote at all.

Still, the poll, conducted in early summer with results released last week, found that there is pessimism at home and abroad about Germany’s future after Merkel, most Germans (52%) believing that their country has passed its “golden age”. . “