SHOULDER to shoulder at the Elysée Palace, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, put on a show of studied unity ahead of this week’s European Union summit. Yet despite concessions on both sides there is a growing sense in France that it has given more ground. Just four months from a presidential election, such perceptions have begun to stir up some nasty germanophobie.
Arnaud Montebourg, a defeated candidate at the Socialist presidential primary, compared Mrs Merkel’s policies to those of Bismarck, who he said also sought “to dominate other European countries, particularly France”. Jean-Marie Le Guen, another Socialist, likened Mr Sarkozy to Edouard Daladier, the French prime minister who signed the Munich agreement in 1938 that allowed Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland. In an attempt to calm matters, François Hollande, the Socialist presidential candidate, who visited Berlin this week while Mrs Merkel was in Paris, insisted that it was “not Germanophobic” to guard against German dominance: “We cannot let the Germans alone appoint themselves experts and judges.”
Fuelling fears of a loss of sovereignty goes down well in a crisis and ahead of a close election. France, after all, voted against the EU constitution in a 2005 referendum, has always feared the consequences of German reunification and remains divided over the benefits of the single currency. There is plenty of frustration over excessive German rigour. “We all have to be German now,” huffs one senior official. Mocking German dominance is in vogue. A cult television advertisement for Renault sends up German superiority by praising French engineering in a mangled mix of French and (subtitled) German.
Still, there is a big step between grumbling mockery and dragging up Germany’s darker past. The trouble with fearmongering is that it comes at a time when ordinary people across the Rhine know less and less about each other. There is a web of ties between elite ministries and governments, but French citizens now have fewer links to Germany. The share of secondary-school pupils picking German as a first foreign language has fallen to just 6%, less than half the level 20 years ago. Some 93% now go for English, with Spanish the favourite second language. A Senate report calls the trend “preoccupying”.
France may not have British-style populist tabloids to fan anti-German jingoism. But it does have the far-right National Front, which wants France to quit the euro. Marine Le Pen, the party’s media-friendly leader, last week accused Mr Sarkozy of selling France out to a “German diktat”. She is running a strong third place in presidential-election polling—a score that, if anything, may understate her support.