Photoshopped images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed in Nazi uniform have become a common sight at angry protests across Europe, especially in southern countries that disagree with her budget-cutting prescription to lead the Continent out of its debt crisis.
But it is a far less provocative message of European discontent, coming from the ruling party of France, that has some more worried.
In a recent draft document, French Socialist politicians blamed Ms. Merkel’s “selfish intransigence,” and dubbed her the “chancellor of austerity,” with some even publicly picking a fight with the German leader. In doing so, they are putting to the test one of the cornerstones of the European Union: the Franco-German alliance.
The relationship between the two powers has always been fraught due to their profoundly different political systems and cultures. And today the cohesion of the 27-member EU is founded on much more than just the relationship between the two biggest economies of the eurozone.
But at a time of deep crisis, when the EU is faced with widespread distrust and European nations are considering whether they would be better off without it, the deteriorating tone between France and Germany lends to the sense of precariousness across the Continent.
“The issue of solidarity at the European level” has been an increasing worry as “little by little, divisions have appeared between member states,” says Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. The growing perception that some European politics should be renationalized is troubling, she says.
“There is the feeling that all that has been built is more fragile, especially when the essential axis between France and Germany, which is considered sacred, can be eroded so easily.”
'A coach and horses'
The origins of the EU lie in the French and German relationship, after the two countries agreed to pool coal and steel production and invited other countries to join along. The European Coal and Steel Community was not just economic but political: by pooling the most important raw materials of both countries, the prospect of war sharply diminished.
It was considered such a key moment that the day the proposal was made, on May 9, 1950, is celebrated today as Europe Day.
Relations deepened after the Elysee Treaty of 1963 was signed by then-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who famously said Europe was "a coach and horses, with Germany the horse and France the coachman.”
That solidarity, which is celebrated this year at the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee treaty, has always been tested. France is statist, Germany is federalist. The so-called “French way of life” – such as the 35-hour work week – irks Germans, who are more prone to save. France wants a much greater role for itself on the world stage. Even at the most basic level, French President François Hollande and Merkel have vastly different political sensibilities.
A testier relationship
But deeper fissures have appeared over this year, as France has lost its competitiveness and Germany has powered forward, giving Germany a leading voice in EU affairs – and leaving a smaller voice for France.
A decade ago, Germany overhauled its labor and welfare systems, and today its export-driven economy is the most powerful in Europe, while France’s economy has stagnated and entered a recession – its second in four years – in early 2013. Germany’s unemployment rate stands at more than 6 percent, compared with over 10 percent in France.
"France has been pushed into second rank. That is difficult for France, but it is also difficult for Germany,” says Guntram Wolff, a German economist and the acting director of the Brussels think tank Bruegel. “Germany needs to work closely with France or the whole project cannot work. Germany wants a strong France.”
He says relations are not necessarily at a crisis point, but there has been a definite “deterioration in tone.”
In France, Germany is painted as power-hungry, wanting to dominate over European affairs. The speaker of the French parliament, Claude Bartolone, asked for a “confrontation” with Germany. Arnaud Montebourg, the industry minister, said France should “start a fight” with the EU.
Germans have increasingly chastised France for not doing enough to reform its labor market and boost productivity, warning it could join the list of failed economies of the south.
Germany’s frigid relations with Hollande stand in sharp contrast to those of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was so aligned with Merkel that the two earned the moniker “Merkozy.” That might have put the two biggest eurozone economies on the same page at the beginning of the crisis, but they were also accused of shutting out the rest of Europe.
In some ways, the current skirmish is a positive sign, says Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “That France and Germany are in dispute is more comforting,” says Ms. Guérot, as it follows a long tradition of providing “compromise for Europe by dispute.”
But on the other hand, she says, other tense historical moments, such as the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s, for example, which led to the creation of the euro, have not been as troubling as now – simply because the stakes are higher.
“Citizens are getting confused and frustrated, wondering if this will ever end,” says Guérot. If relations deteriorate, it will be harder to find the political will to reach solutions needed to solve the crisis. That has repercussions for all of Europe.
“[Brussels] is not a power center. The power centers are in Berlin and Paris. If they don’t agree, Brussels gets paralyzed,” Wolff says.
It’s also symbolically disconcerting for the identity of Europe. Hugo Brady, senior research fellow and Brussels representative for the Center for European Reform, says that the breakdown is one of the biggest challenges the union faces today.
"If there isn't a France-German alliance, it’s the end of the Europe we’ve known for 50 years.”