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Exit Germany, Enter France


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 m