BACK in September, as Germany struggled to cope with the politics and logistics of the greatest influx of refugees in modern history, France decided to put on a show of European solidarity. French bureaucrats, armed with Arabic translators and loudspeakers, chartered three coaches and set off for the German city of Munich. The idea was to fill the vehicles with refugees and drive them over the Rhine to France, thus easing Germany’s load. The French had planned to fetch some 1,000 asylum-seekers. But in the end, only a few hundred could be persuaded to climb on board. It seemed they were not interested in French solidarity; they wanted to live in Germany. The coaches left half-empty.
The pattern was a familiar one. As Europe has scrambled to respond to the ground-shifting events of the past few months—first the Greek currency drama, now the refugee crisis—France has found itself increasingly marginalised: at best a junior partner to Mrs Merkel, at worst a mute spectator. With Greece teetering on the brink of expulsion from the euro zone in July, Mr Hollande cajoled, consulted and mediated. But it was Mrs Merkel’s word, after the best part of a long night, that determined Greece’s fate.
The refugee exodus finds France on Europe’s sidelines again. When vast numbers of migrants started to land on Mediterranean shores earlier this summer, Mr Hollande refused to countenance the idea of national quotas to share out the asylum-seekers. It was not until Mrs Merkel turned Germany into a haven, earning accolades as the guardian of Europe’s humanitarian spirit, that the French began to shift. By September Mr Hollande went into reverse, backing a compulsory European quota scheme after all. As fences went up and barbed wire was rolled out, Mr Hollande—a protégé of Jacques Delors, architect of a borderless Europe—stood quietly by. It was Mrs Merkel alone who went off to Ankara last month to try to persuade the Turks to tighten controls at their frontier with Europe. And it was she who then led an emergency meeting in Brussels of countries along the “Balkan route” favoured by migrants; France was not even present.
Up to a point, the eclipse of France over refugees is the product of geography and history. When Libya imploded a few years ago, and migrants took to the western Mediterranean, France and Italy were on the front line. This time, the surge happened in the east, far from French borders: from Syria and Iraq via Turkey and the Aegean islands of Greece. If anything, migrants’ ties of family, faith or tongue to towns in Germany, Britain or Sweden, as well as better job prospects in those places, have turned France into a country of transit, not a terminus. Its greatest problem with refugees is in Calais, where some 6,000 migrants are camped out under plastic sheeting on muddy tracks—but they are seeking to flee the French port, and make it through the Channel tunnel to the stronger economy of Britain.
It would be wrong to suggest that the French have quietly agreed to be Europe’s bit-players. After all, Mr Hollande sought only one outcome from the negotiations with Greece, and he secured it: that the country should remain in the euro zone. The French president has since been arguing for a number of ideas designed to strengthen the single currency, such as a euro-zone parliament, budget and fiscal transfers. France is also pushing for common European border guards. And the force of joint Franco-German muscle still matters: it was not until the French at last swung behind the idea of quotas that the policy took shape. In some ways, an informal division of labour gives Germany the lead within Europe, and France the lead outside it. Abroad, France brings its military might to bear in ways that Germany would find unthinkable (and which now eclipse Britain’s efforts): picking off jihadists in the Sahel, or unloading bombs over Syria and Iraq. Its efficient diplomatic corps is sparing no effort to try to secure a binding global deal to curb carbon emissions at the Paris climate talks, which start on November 30th.
The sound of silence
Ever since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, France has tied itself to Germany on a simple understanding: that whatever divergences of interests or policy the pair had, they would find a way to co-operate. This used to mean compromising on an egalitarian basis. But over the past decade, as economic weakness has enfeebled its political hand and enlargement has diluted its power, France has struggled to accept its diminished status. The growing imbalance was disguised only by the hyperactivity of Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Hollande’s predecessor. Today, Mr Hollande’s unimposing presidency has exposed the French to the uncomfortable reality of a German-led Europe. Faced with Germany’s unilateral policymaking over the migrant crisis, the French have found themselves wrong-footed, and silenced.
The French government’s response, suggests François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a think-tank, can be summed up in the common French term tétanisé(derived from the muscle-tightening disease tetanus, or lockjaw). France has said as little as possible about migrants, and done even less. It has agreed to accept just 24,000 asylum-seekers, less than a third of the capacity of its national football stadium. Since the beginning of September, Germany has taken in some 500,000.
The real fear at the back of the French government’s mind is that anything it says or does will be a gift to Marine Le Pen and her far-right National Front. As it is, she is the favourite to win control of the northern French region at elections next month. A canny tactician, Ms Le Pen knows that she scarcely needs to murmur a word to win support: images of refugees snaking their way across Balkan fields, or washing up in boats on Greek shores, do the work for her. Mrs Merkel urgently needs other European states to share the refugee burden. Whatever Mr Hollande’s reservations, he has neither the force nor the inclination to defy her. But he steps in to bail her out at his peril.