Germany and France: Old Demons

The suspension of arms sales is a classic instrument of diplomacy. It has been wielded on a number of occasions against nations whose governments and armed forces are accused of flagrant human rights violations. In May 1977, the U.S. administration under Jimmy Carter suspended arms sales to the Argentine military junta after the coup of March 24, 1976. In October 2013, President Obama’s administration temporarily froze arms sales to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt after he orchestrated a coup against Mohamed Morsi and instituted a policy of repression. The U.S. has also considered halting sales of laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia after it used one in an air raid that cost the lives of 155 people in October 2016 during a funeral in the capital of Yemen, and again in an attack on a Yemini school bus that killed forty children on August 9, 2018. The European Union imposed arms embargoes on 21 countries between 1986 (Libya) and 2017 (Venezuela). The European Parliament has repeatedly called upon nations to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.[1] On December 8, 2008, the European Council adopted a resolution defining common rules for granting arms export licenses, based on criteria that include the performance of the destination country as regards human rights.[2] Germany and France both signed and ratified the Arms Trade Treaty that entered into force on December 24, 2014, whose object includes “reducing human suffering” (Article 1).

It is thus not surprising that the Federal Republic of Germany deliberated to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia following the atrocious and brutal assassination of the journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Audio recordings supplied by the Turkish intelligence service provide irrefutable proof that the operation was carried out by a team of killers sent specifically for that purpose from Riyadh. Berlin then expanded and extended the temporary measure to September 30 in response to the humanitarian disaster caused by the war in Yemen. A report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has placed the number of victims from bombings and starvation at 233,000, of which 140,000 were infants below the age of 5, after the escalation of the conflict in 2014.[3] It might seem surprising, then, that French president Emmanuel Macron, who leads a country that helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, qualified this measure as “pure demagoguery” at his October 26, 2018 press conference during an official visit to Bratislava. At the very least, it runs counter to accepted diplomatic practice that a diplomatic representative—in this case the French ambassador to Berlin—should dare to challenge the German administration and criticize its decision, appealing to alleged bilateral or European industrial, economic, and defense priorities, when what is at stake—respect for the rule of law and ethics—should take precedence in the international arena, and all the more so within Europe, which has already suffered enough abuse.[4] In truth, respect for human rights has never been a priority of French foreign policy, whose inspiration and implementation is constitutionally entrusted to the Palais de l’Élysée (the President) and not to Quai d’Orsay (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) or Matignon (Prime Minister). We see this in French policy toward Libya, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen, where France maintains troops, toward Saudi Arabia, France’s third largest arms customer, and toward Egypt, its largest, receiving more than twenty-five percent of France’s arms exports. The Director General of DGSE, the French external intelligence agency, Bernard Émié, career diplomat, boasted recently “excellent relations” with the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, “an exceptional woman whom I much admire”.[5] She was famously in charge of CIA covert operations, and particularly the CIA’s program of secret prisons (the Extraordinary Rendition and Detention Program) and the acts of torture committed against detainees. She ordered the destruction of videos of the interrogations just before the U.S. Senate began investigating the matter. In April, the French website Disclose, a partner in the French-German television network ARTE, published a confidential internal memo from the Direction Générale du Renseignement Intérieur (DGRI – Central Directorate of Internal Security) with a detailed list of French arms used by Saudi and UAR troops in Yemen. The two journalists were rewarded with a summons from the Directorate for having “compromised national defense secrets”. At that point the conflict had already caused tens of thousands of deaths and an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, Royal Saudi Air Force pilots are in training in image analysis at the École Militaire in France to improve their targeting capabilities. Action Sécurité Éthique Républicaines (ASER), an association campaigning in favor of the German initiative, filed a complaint on May 6 against the French government for violation of the Arms Trade Treaty. Prior to that, on April 25, eight associations, including Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières, sued to block the French decision to deliver coast guard vessels to the Libyan Navy, fearing that they would be used to perpetrate human rights violations against migrants.

The German initiative temporarily affects exports to Saudi Arabia of certain French and European weaponry manufactured using German-made parts. The CEOs of Airbus Defence & Space and of Rheinmetal strongly opposed the measure.[6] The assertion that it threatens European defense and arms projects—including the FCAS program (the combat aircraft slated to replace the Eurofighter and the Rafale by 2040), the MGCS (tank), Eurodrone, etc., which we are to understand should be exempted from any diplomatic constraint—is a manifest exaggeration. And attributing this initiative to “electoral schemes”, terming it “wishful thinking” subject to the “trend in the domestic policy debate”, as the French diplomat does, amounts to unconscionable derision of a worthy measure that has, to date, been approved by seven European countries[7] and enjoys the support of 75% of the French based on a survey conducted in March 2018.[8] Berlin has not forgotten France’s withdrawal from the European Fighter Aircraft program (EFA) in August 1985 to launch the Rafale, which French Prime Minister Michel Rocard (1988-1991) characterized as an “advanced industrial disaster” in September 1988, a program that cost French taxpayers more than 45 billion euros.

This difference in approach reveals a deeper issue between the two countries that is rarely addressed in the hallways of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs or in diplomatic telegrams. The historical partnership cultivated within the framework of the European Union, originally created to curb the rivalries and conflicts that once characterized relations among the two European nations, should not fool us. Given the economic, financial, commercial, and demographic characteristics of each, it is clear that the two countries have different stances and approaches in the international arena. And these differences will only be accentuated as time goes on, in spite of the buffering effect of the European Union. At the moment, they are relatively co-equal members, coexisting within this variegated array of 27 nations, where they alone represent half the GDP and more than a third of the budget and populations, and 30% of the seats on the European Council.

After German reunification, Germany’s development as an economic power and France’s as a military power no longer appear to be complementary. This asymmetry raises questions regarding France’s real capacity to take on a European leadership role and to hold its position in the world, even within the sphere of influence of its former African colonies, where its military interventions—in Mali and in the Central African Republic—are financially and logistically propped up by the United States. This gives us an image of France whose ambitions to be a European leader and great power, upholding multilateralism but wanting to play with the big boys, exceed its real capabilities. Certainly, France retains the attributes of power: a permanent seat on the Security Council, its nuclear deterrent force, the second largest army and second largest military budget in Europe after Russia, the second largest diplomatic network after the United States. Germany, its fingers burned after the Second World War, for which it bears the blame and the stigma, currently has none of these attributes. It practices a discreet and non-interventionist diplomacy in spite of its membership in NATO, somewhat of a burden as exemplified by the twenty U.S. nuclear warheads stored at Büchel Air Base. But it is one of the world’s most solid economies on the technological, financial, and social level: Germany now has all the resources of power. The crux of French-German relations lies wholly in this imbalance. But the current question of leadership in Europe is rooted in a common history, where France’s original European project was to control Germany and not emancipate it. The return of Germany “to the fold of civilized nations” after its “moral disintegration”,[9] must necessarily take place within the framework of Europe. While France witnessed German reunification without enthusiasm, it has been able to accept it without fear thanks to European institutions. It brings to mind the quip by the writer François Mauriac: “I love Germany so much that I am delighted that there are two of them.”

Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor of Germany from 1974 to 1982 wrote in his book Die Deutschen und ihre Nachbarn that for reasons of susceptibility and prestige, Bonn must not ever appear to be a leading power within the European Community, always deferring to Paris.[10] But this role of political assistant and economic subcontractor no longer suits Germany. Chancellor Merkel has never forgotten how she was sidelined in the spring of 2008 in Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Union project and the pressure exerted on her to join in the military operations in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi, with all the well-known humanitarian and institutional consequences this produced for Libya and European immigration: more than 500,000 migrants have crossed the central Mediterranean from Libya since 2015.[11]

Emmanuel Macron’s open letter of March 5, 2019 to EU citizens published before the European Parliamentary elections scheduled for late May, France’s opposition to the Spitzenkandidat process, whereby a lead candidate is chosen from the election to run the EU executive as provided in Article 9 of the Treaty of Lisbon (with the candidate likely to be a German in the specific case), and the allusions made by the French president during his press conference on April 25 regarding the economic development of Germany[12] are all signs of a reawakened yearning for preeminence mentioned by the late former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. France may even agree to have a German heading the European Commission but the president has to be appointed with France’s agreement; without the legitimacy and the independence of a leader elected.

The historian Christian Hacke argues that the advantages of the French-German alliance are overestimated and suggests that Germany should rearm, including the acquisition of nuclear capability, if it want to hold its own among nations.[13] Germany’s military budget rose in 2018 to 38.95 billion euros or 1.25% of GDP. By comparison, France’s military budget is 34.2 billion euros (1.82% of GDP). At the NATO summit in Brussels in July 2018, Chancellor Merkel made assurances that her country would dedicate 1.5% of its GDP to defense spending from here to 2025 (a perhaps unrealistic objective, the percentage is unlikely to exceed the average seen in recent years of around 1.3%).[14] Echoing an opinion piece published by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who succeeded Angela Merkel as president of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), the German Chancellor argued last March that the European voices should be regrouped as a permanent member of the UN Security Council,[15] as was also suggested by the German finance minister, the social democrat Olaf Scholz, in November 2018. France is not against a reform of the United Nations Security Council but fiercely opposes any alterations or extensions to the veto right granted to the five existing permanent members.

Given its recent history, Germany has a major handicap in playing the role of European leader and in translating its economic prominence into diplomatic leadership. As former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in 2009, the “enormous and unique burden of our history” weighs against it.[16]

France and Germany now coexist peacefully and, to all appearances, amicably reconciled within the European Union. The stability and durability of this heterogeneous and fragile grouping, to which the Norwegian Nobel Committee paid tribute by awarding it the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, lies in the union of these two former belligerents, nations with new generations who are confronted, as their economic asymmetry and geopolitical ambitions grow, with new conflicts, new rivalries, new challenges, and new temptations. As for the lessons of History, they have apparently not learned much: France and Germany are, respectively, the world’s third and fifth arms exporters. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Patrick Howlett-Martin, is an historian and a career diplomat from France Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is the author of several books and articles on International Relations. The most recent: “Brazil, The Disputed Rise of a Regional Power (2003-2015)”. His mail :


1. On February 25, 2016, November 30, 2017, and October 25, 2018.

2. Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, defining common rules governing control of exports of military technology and equipment, December 8, 2008.

3. “Assessing The Impact of War on Development in Yemen”, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sana’a, Republic of Yemen, 2019.

4. Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik Arbeitspapier Sicherheitspolitik Nr. 7/2019.

5. Politique internationale, no. 163, spring 2019.

6. “Rüstungsexporte nach Saudi-Arabien. Airbus will Bundesregierung verklagen”, Spiegel online, May 3, 2019; “Rheinmetall will Schadensersatz für Lieferstopp nach Saudi-Arabien”, Spiegel online, January 20, 2019.

7. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Norway, and Spain.

8. YouGov survey for the NGO SumOfUs published on March 26, 2018.

9. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder during a speech in Caen commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy.

10. Die Deutschen und ihre Nachbarn, Berlin, Siedler, 1990, p. 176.

11. Jérôme Gautheret and Julia Pascual, “Castaner accuse les ONG d’être ‘complices’ des passeurs”, Le Monde, April 6, 2019.

12. “Germany is clearly exhausting a growth model that has benefited a great deal from imbalances in the Euro Zone.”

13. Christian Hacke, “Why Germany Should Get The Bomb”, The National Interest, August 12, 2018.

14. Defense Expenditure of NATO Countries (2010-2017), NATO, June 2017.

15. Thomas Liabot, “Européennes : Merkel affiche ses divergences avec Macron”, Le Journal du Dimanche, 11

16. Helmut Schmidt, speech to the SPD congress in December 2011.


Patrick Howlett-Martin is a career diplomat living in Paris. His new book is La Mémoire Profanée. Les Spoliations Nazies. Le vol du Patrimoine culturel et la question de sa restitution (The Profaned Memory. Nazis Spoliations. The Theft of Cultural Heritage and the Issue of its Restitution), L’Harmattan, Paris, October 2023.