Germany and France locked in a refugee crisis: alone together

Refugees at the border in Gevgelija, Mazedonia (August 24, 2015)

Whilst the refugee crisis has dominated debates in Germany since 2015, it plays a subordinate role in France where the war on Islamist terrorism and the desperate state of the economy dominate.  Germany has accepted 440.000 migrants but France sees its role as tackling the problem at source with military intervention.

Is the refugee crisis a German crisis? Whilst the crisis has dominated debates in Germany since 2015 like no other issue before, it plays a subordinate role in France. Other problems take centre stage there: the war on Islamist terrorism, on the one hand, and the desperate state of the economy, on the other. The direct impact on individual people is also less dramatic than in Germany – hardly surprising given the numbers involved: around 440,000 people applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, compared to only around 70,000 in France. French politicians have blatantly criticised Germany’s refugee policy over the past few months; in turn, Berlin has been perplexed by Paris’ scant support. How did these two very divergent views come about? How does each country assess the role of their neighbour?

Divergent priorities in France and Germany

The terminology used is an immediate indicator of their differences: instead of referring to them as refugees who require special protection according to the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the term “migrants” (“crise migratoire” or “crise des migrants”) is more commonly heard in France. People from the Middle East fleeing from wars and violence recall images of Germany’s past and the country’s experiences with flight and exile, which therefore evokes a sense of compassion among the majority of Germans. Taking in refugees is considered a humanitarian duty by most citizens. By contrast, the “migrants”, as they are usually referred to, are met with a feeling of distrust among many French. Leaving your own country to pursue the promise of a better life somewhere else is not considered by many in France to be a legitimate reason for being admitted into the country. In part, this rejection also has something to do with France’s social climate that provides the ideal breeding ground for xenophobia.

France’s economy continues to stagnate. Its unemployment rate is over ten percent, with young people suffering in particular. Many French feel that their future is at risk. Added to this, there were two Islamist terror attacks in Paris in January and November 2015. Yet, whilst discussions on the misguided integration of immigrants have ensued, Islamist terror has more frequently been debated from the point of view of security – as has refugee policy, because many fear that the influx of more refugees inevitably goes hand in hand with increased terror. Not least of all, there is the right-wing populist Front National that hunts for votes by talking about security and immigration and has proven to be very successful in doing so. To avert this, the established parties are trying to avoid any debate on France’s and Europe’s refugee policy.

“Mommy Merkel” instead of “Iron Chancellor”

In both countries, the political leadership has failed to deal with the rising number of refugees for a long time, as immigration and integration have been considered contentious issues that are best avoided. Germany’s U-turn in the summer of 2015 and the country’s “open-door culture” have been a source of confusion for France, all the more so since France’s political parties have ceased to be able to work off the German chancellor. The French Left, which had previously perceived Merkel as the neo-liberal “Iron Chancellor”, has now begun praising her as “Mommy Merkel” for her humanity.

By contrast, the Conservatives have dropped their reference to their “modèle allemand”, which they had consistently upheld as the counter-image to the socialist government. A further new aspect was that Germany suddenly became the supplicant and turned to France and other EU Member States for support. A large number of French politicians has felt a certain schadenfreude at this, as Germany’s economic superiority, along with the euro crisis, has long since left them with the impression of being lesser equals to their partner. They also draw on old clichés of a Germany acting in a calculating and arrogant manner. There was talk that France’s neighbour was pointing the “moral finger”, but, in fact, all that they wanted to do was capitalise demographically and economically on the immigrants.

Successful division of labour or a lack of solidarity?

Even in Paris, the German government’s proposal of relocating refugees according to an EU-wide distribution key only fell on fallow ground. Despite François Hollande promising, in the summer of 2015, that his country would receive 30,000 refugees, Prime Minister Manuel Valls decisively rejects any relocation that goes beyond France’s binding obligations. Instead, Paris opted for a different division of labour: Germany should take in refugees, whilst France would combat the causes of the refugee influx through military action in Syria. France also wants to step up the security of the EU’s external borders in the Mediterranean and deploy police to Greece as part of the deal with Turkey.

Can such a division of labour work in the long run? Despite the avowals from Germany and France that both countries agree on all main issues, this cannot hide that their unity is of a more symbolic nature and that they do not in fact pursue a common policy. They lack joint approaches to reform the Schengen Agreement or to push for a common EU asylum policy. Germany and France have missed an opportunity to promulgate European values and a European solution to the refugee crisis. This has made it difficult to find a common and sustainable response to the influx of refugees and migration. Accordingly, the EU has shown an overall incapacity to act.

This article is part of our dossier "Crossing borders – refugee and asylum policy in Europe".

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