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Olaf Scholz, Germany's chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, France's president, at a meeting on day two of the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29, 2022.

Olaf Scholz, Germany's chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, France's president, at a meeting on day two of the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29, 2022. (Valeria Mongelli/Bloomberg)

Vladimir Putin has faced setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine, but he might be happy to hear of cracks in the relationship between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

After a canceled summit and a not-quite-convincing handshake and working lunch, the two leaders are struggling to rekindle the magic of Franco-German unity. And there is barely concealed joy from some quarters that the European Union’s policymaking “engine” is sputtering. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted: “Macron constantly follows Germany, but Germany doesn’t follow Emmanuel Macron.”

Not to mention the told-you-so tone of those who deny the existence of such an engine in the first place. Skeptical commentators have cast the idea of a Paris-Berlin axis as a largely fictitious object, conjured by pro-Europeans as a way to mask France’s decline and Germany’s rise since the turn of the millennium. Paris proposes, Berlin disposes.

We should be careful not to exaggerate the Macron-Scholz cold snap. France and Germany are at the heart of Europe, but they rarely beat in unison. Before the Iraq War, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were frequently at odds. After the financial crisis, Greece’s woes led to several showdowns between Angela Merkel and her French counterparts. And as recently as 2019, it looked like Macron’s European integration plans would also founder on the rocks of opposition from “Madame Nein.”

But nor should we celebrate the wrinkles in the relationship. Agreement among the EU’s 27 members is hard enough when its two biggest economies see eye-to-eye — consider the months of negotiation to make a plan for pandemic recovery funds a reality. When they don’t, things can feel gridlocked, as they currently do in Brussels.

Pierre Sellal, former French ambassador to the EU, describes the relationship as “necessary,” not “sentimental.” “Whenever France or Germany try to go against or around the other, it never ends well,” he tells me.

A lot of the issues currently dividing the two countries are long-running ones: Germany’s preference for a U.S. security umbrella over France’s preference for French-led or European projects, its energy model based on fossil fuels versus French nuclear, and a tendency to put its own trade interests above its allies’ — such as its agreement to sell a stake in a Hamburg port to China’s Cosco Shipping Holdings Co.

But if these divides are flaring up now, it’s because Paris and some other capitals feel Berlin is failing to grasp the extent to which it has blundered strategically in so many areas. After having endured lectures from Germany throughout the euro-zone crisis, France and others might have felt schadenfreude at seeing its economy laid low by a dependence on Russian gas and Chinese exports.

And as a painful recession now looms, there is widespread angst over Germany’s refusal to change its approach. Paris and its partners have for months been pushing Berlin to accept more joint borrowing as a way to cushion the energy blow. Yet the response from Germany has so far been to prioritize its own national plans, such as domestic aid of up to 200 billion euros ($200 billion) or preparing a trade visit to China.

The answer to these issues is not to write off the relationship itself as being anachronistic or broken. There aren’t any viable replacements for this European engine, even at a time when the center of gravity is shifting East. France has cultivated ties with the U.K. on defense matters and with Italy on economic matters, but coalition-building can only go so far.

France and its partners should keep prodding Germany in a less selfish direction, but Paris should also fixate less on Berlin’s problems and a little more on changing its approach. In the best Gaullist tradition, Macron has spread the gospel of strategic autonomy and geopolitical awakening, but talk of NATO’s brain-death look especially mistaken today. Paris’ backing of nuclear energy has been a good choice, but one undermined by the industrial-policy failures of utility EDF. On issues from supporting Ukraine to domestic economic reforms, France can do more to lead by example.

And the two sides should work to understand each other’s limits. Scholz and his coalition are untested and hesitant, increasing the temptation to play to a domestic audience; Macron is bogged down in parliamentary gridlock at home, making Germany a tempting punching bag. The current discontent feels like more than a momentary blip, but France and Germany should also recognize this is not the time to give Putin reasons to be cheerful.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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