The Rising Rooster
France is the depressive genius of the European countries. Charles de Gaulle best described the dilemma faced by French governments when dealing with their citizens' culture when he asked, “How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheeses?” Though France has had spurts of dominance under the mighty Napoleon in the 19th century and Charlemagne in the 9th century--though the Germans claim he was not French-- France is often the second most powerful nation in Europe. Spain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Russia, and the UK have risen and fallen, but France consistently stays in second place.
In 21st century Europe, Paris is second fiddle to Berlin. Germany is the engine that runs the EU, commanding a larger economy and population than France. However, the fundamentals that shape today's world will not form tomorrow’s world. In this brave new world, France, not Germany, will be the top dog of Europe, with an ability to project power in Africa, South America, the Pacific, and, with a grin from Napoleon, Europe.
Sorry Hans, the Liberal International Order is just a phase
First, It is necessary to understand how and why today's world order is changing to explain how France will succeed in the future global order. Since 1945, the Liberal International Order (LIO) has been the presiding global order. Under the umbrella of American hegemony, the global population exponentially increased, and the resources to sustain such growth were extracted or invented to increase the quality of life for an untold amount of people. In 1991, with the dissolution of the USSR, the purpose behind this order vanished. The US created the LIO to promote peace and economic growth, but specifically to build a grand coalition to defeat the Soviet Union. With the USSR fractured, succeeding U.S. administrations have failed, avoided, or resisted finding a new, preeminent purpose that would necessitate the evolution of multilateral coalitions.
The LIO still exists today because today's policymakers have never known another world without it. In essence, the US and the rest of the world are caught in something geopolitical scholar Peter Zeihan calls a “strategic drift.” The LIO exists, and still benefits the globe by promoting free trade and liberal values, but it is stagnant and unable to face down actors and existential crises that are smarter (Russia, Iran, transnational terrorist groups) and more massive (Climate Change, COVID) than it. The LIO could be adapted and strengthened, but the globe’s great powers have maliciously or accidentally failed to enact cohesive strategies to shape the LIO for the 21st century.
As the LIO weakens and is replaced by some new multipolar order, France’s geographies will bolster it’s soft and hard power, and Paris will shine like the sun. Germany, on the other hand, will face troubled waters as it finds itself inside a geopolitical cage.
The global order is becoming more constrained as the imperial might of the US retreats from the global stage and is partially replaced by a mish-mash of regional powers. In the midst of this, Europe is on a divisive track, as the EU remains unable to manage its bout with nationalism and unsustainably different and contradictory judicial and economic policies that inhibit cohesion between its member states. Amid this evolving and chaotic change in international relations, France is more in its element. France has better supply chains, better demographics, better geography, and a better military than Germany to handle this shift. It is these factors that make France more likely than Germany to become Europe’s great power.
I’m not arguing for a Franco-German reversion to the mean where both countries start fighting each other any chance they get. Rather, I’m explaining that while France and Germany will still cooperate on a host of economic, cultural, and political issues, the more powerful of the duo will be France, which contradicts the current environment where Germany is on top. Specifically for this article, I’ll be looking at power projection, demographics, and future technology, and pointing out how France has, or will have the upper hand in all three of these areas.
Hans, you’re getting old
In a historic reversal, the Germans are the ones with the abysmal demographics. Germany is aging and shrinking much faster than the French. Germany has hovered between negative and positive population growth for the past five decades. By the middle of this decade, estimates say that Germany will hit negative population growth, and it may take decades to get out of there.
Furthermore, Germany is aging. Its population pyramid is an absolute mess, showing a large cohort of 45-64 year olds and a much smaller group of 18-32 year olds to replace them. According to a press release by Germany’s statistical office, the country expects to lose four to six million of its working population in spite of increasing birth rates and net positive migration flows. Germany’s median age is 45.7, and that will continue to rise. This means that as Germany’s working population retires, there’ll be fewer workers to replace them, resulting in an increasingly larger tax burden placed on an ever smaller working age population to take care of the growing elderly population. This double demographic blow of less people and crucially less young people will wreak havoc on Germany’s economy. Germany needs to either cut its generous welfare programs, a politically unreasonable position, or increase population growth, a tricky proposal that can’t happen immediately.
While Germany has seen its fertility rate tick up due to new social policies such as more generous child care programs and maternal leave programs, it’s only peaked at 1.59 children born per woman in 2016. The number is still short of the recommended 2.1 children born per woman to have stable population growth. This number could be increased by immigration and more space, both of which Berlin is having difficulty in raising sustainably.
Germany has taken in a little less than three million new migrants in five years, from conflict and economic refugees in Syria and Africa to immigrants from Eastern Europe and the UK. Even this massive boost in immigration will only stall, not reverse Berlin’s demographic crisis. Moreover, the amount of immigrants has resulted in a massive political backlash. Half of Germany believes the county can’t accept any more refugees, and the anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) got representation in the Bundestag for the first time in 2017, garnering 12.6 percent of the vote and becoming the country's third largest party.
Additionally, Germany doesn’t have enough space for quick growth. Germany has the highest population density in Europe, with the exception of the microstates, the Low Countries, and the UK. It is heavily urbanized and industrialized, meaning that comfortable housing, which is conducive to having larger families, is hard to come by in Germany.
Finally, even if Germany miraculously overcame its demographic woes and underwent a population boom tomorrow, it would take more than twenty years for this boom to become profitable. Meanwhile, the globe is entering new political crises now. Berlin is out of time.
In the meantime, France’s demography is twenty years behind Germany. France is projected to reach negative population growth by the 2040s. Furthermore, France’s fertility rate is among the strongest in Europe, hovering around 1.9 children born per mother. Paris, which is extremely bad at integrating its immigrant community, doesn’t even have to rely on mass immigration like Germany to complement its relatively high growth rate.
France’s strong demographics give Paris the leisure of time, something Germany doesn’t have; France has 15-25 years to deal with a changing international order and potential political crises and not worry about demography. In the meantime, France can promote growth by enacting generous social policy to incentivize larger families and promote sustainable migration to the country. Furthermore, France is much less dense than Germany, so the French have more room for an increased population to inhabit as it grows. France may mitigate or escape its demographic crisis, but Germany can’t, and it will serve to weaken Berlin’s economic and political might over the next few years.
Pierre has been working out lately
France is in a stronger position to project global power due to its history as a global empire and because of its favorable geography and military. It is undeniable that France has more hard and soft power than Germany. It may lack as much economic power as Berlin, but as I will argue in my next article on this topic, that is changing in France’s favor. With that exception, more power emanates from Paris than Berlin.
According to the 2019 Lowy Global Index, which measures diplomatic networks, France ranks third (behind China & the US) compared to Germany’s seventh place ranking. This isn’t a one-off: in the Soft Power 30 Report, a collaborative report by Portland and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, France ranked 1st to Germany’s bronze position. Two hundred eighty million speakers greet each other with Bonjour in rapidly growing countries across the globe, such as Haiti, Cameroon, Mali, and Canada. This is compared to only 130 million people in demographically shrinking European countries who say Guten tag. German might be useful if you want to learn philosophy and literature from Kafka, Nietzche, or Goethe, but if you want business, especially in Africa, you speak French.
Global perceptions of France have a je ne sais quoi that Germany can’t achieve over the next twenty years. France breathes glamor and allure, which endow France with an inherent attraction. French wine & cheese is renowned, French fashion is a la mode, French restaurants are the fanciest (bon appetit!), French cinema is noir (though German films like "Metropolis" and "Das Boot" are arguably better), and French music is the language of love (sorry, Roger Cicero). When you think museums, the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay (unfortunately) come up way before the Pergamon Museum and the Alte Pinakothek. Germany is a beautiful country with great mountains, museums, cities, and forests, but in the eyes of the world it’s overshadowed by its western neighbor. Germany is the eighth most visited country in the world with 39 million visitors. It’s an impressive figure, but France demolishes that number as the world's most visited country with a massive 89 million visitors. Not only does it provide France with more revenue but it demonstrates the international appeal France has over Germany.
In the meantime, Germany has to put up with Eastern European neighbors calling them Nazis and reminding them of World War II anytime Germany decides to intervene in Eastern European affairs in a way that hurts the governing administrations. This appeal to glamour and fame, though irrational, is key in understanding France’s inherent soft power. France is just sexier than Germany.
In the UN, France will always outrank Germany. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, France can always veto UN resolutions, something the Germans can never do.
French military might outclasses Germany in most metrics. This is partially by design. Nobody in post-WWII Earth wanted a rearmed Germany. Frankly, even the Germans aren’t too keen about rebuilding their military.
If the French and Germans ever think that WWI was a good idea and attempt a rematch, the French would win ... instantly. France has the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and if they wanted to, they could bomb Germany back into the stone age. Luckily, the probability of a Franco-German war is negligible, because nobody wants one and everyone will lose. More importantly, France also has a larger army, air force, and navy than Germany. The Germans compete with the French in terms of ground forces, but everywhere else, it’s a French blowout. French strategic and tactical dominance in the military means that it can defend its borders, lead NATO, defend trade routes, support allies, and send expeditionary forces with much greater ease and success than Berlin.
In addition to Paris’ material advantage, France has more recent experience leading and supporting its military. France has a global military, Germany has a regional military. France, not being a fully integrated member of NATO from 1966-2009, has experience being alone, a useful skill when Trump threatens NATO. France has forces in the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Polynesia, and the Sahel. It can support these men by air, or through its blue-water navy. Germany has no foreign bases and has a Navy that can only independently operate in the Baltic, North, and Norwegian seas.
France is better at managing counterinsurgencies than arguably any EU nation because it has the most experience. Drawing from decades of dealing with insurgencies in its former colonial empire, France has used these lessons to relatively successfully manage the Malian insurgency, the largest conflict France has been in during the 21st century. On January 10, 2013, Islamic terrorist organizations were on the doorstep of Mali’s capital, Bamako, when France decided to intervene. Working with the Malian government, French soldiers were deployed in mere hours and launched a campaign that reconquered the country from the Islamists in a mere month. Ever since, while the threat of terrorism remains, France, with Mali and its Sahel neighbors, have been able to constrain Islamic radical groups to the extreme North of the country. Recently, French forces killed one of al-Qaeda’s leading figures in North Africa.
This experience with actual combat and counterinsurgency is vital in a world that is becoming more fractious and where transnational terror groups remain a large problem. France can also use this advantage over Germany to secure trade routes in a neo-mercantile fashion. In a more dangerous political environment, France better understands how it can mitigate risks and create coalitions, while Germany is inexperienced in this field, hurting its ability to lead, build alliances, and employ military might.
Europe dreams on the Champs-Elysees
France’s fundamentals augment its ability to incorporate new technologies into its economic and political machine. Germany does beat France in its entrepreneurialism and efficiency, but Paris is stronger than Berlin in two key sectors: Space and Renewables.
With the exception of Russia, France has the largest space infrastructure in Europe. It’s the largest contributor to the European Space Agency (ESA), whose headquarters are in Paris, and its National Center for Space Studies (CNES) is the largest national space program in the EU. In French Guyana, France has a prime spaceport that makes it easier to launch rockets into space in comparison to any European location. France’s European primacy in space will lend it many advantages over Germany as it enters a sector that will become highly lucrative for commercial and state exploitation.
Renewable energy and pro-climate policies are issues that are at the forefront of European policymaking. Despite putting much more effort into its climate policy, Germany emits 9.69 tonnes of carbon dioxide for every citizen compared to France’s 6.64 tonnes of CO2 per person. This is partially because Germany, a country with little wind, sun, and consumption, has decided to invest in solar, wind, and biomass renewables. While great on paper, it’s expensive, wildly inefficient, and comes with nuclear power plant shutdowns, according to an article published on the website of the Energy Collective Group. France has taken an alternate approach and kept its nuclear energy, augmenting it with other renewable energies. This makes France more environmentally friendly with less effort and promotes greater energy resiliency for the French state.
In a shifting international order, different fundamentals are required to succeed as a state, and France’s fundamentals work better in a post-LIO society. Germany may be ahead now, but it won’t be ahead tomorrow.
In the second article, I’ll explain how Germany’s mighty economy is weakening while France’s remains resilient. Furthermore, I’ll describe how France’s geography is a power multiplier and makes it easier for France to secure vital resources while Germany will likely be forced by its geography to engage with Russia in a dangerous cold war.
David Leshchiner is a second-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is the Foreign Affairs editor for the Agora.
Image courtesy Arno Mikkor, Creative Commons