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German Diplomacy and French Intransigence

Have German politicians finally learned the art of diplomacy?

May 31, 2013

Credit: Anton Balazh - Shutterstock

It has taken centuries, but the evidence is now in: Top German politicians have finally learned the art of diplomacy. Unfortunately, the French are completely misreading the tealeaves.

Case in point: At a conference at Sciences Po in Paris this week, Germany’s labor and finance ministers, Ursula von der Leyen and Wolfgang Schaeuble, were repeatedly enticed by French questioners to declare the German way as the only way forward.

Question: “Should Hartz Vier [the German program to accelerate the reentry of the longer-term unemployed into the labor market] be adopted in France?” (Language cognoscenti will note it’s not even “Hartz Quatre,” mais “Hartz Vier.”)

The Germans’ prudent answer? Every country must find its own way forward. There can be no wholesale adoption of programs from one country to another. What really matters most is to consider the principles underlying reform and act on that basis.

And she continues: “We should all follow an evidence-based approach and adopt best practices in each field.”

Considering that the subject matter of the debate at the forum was how to create jobs for the young, this was indeed an amazing act of diplomacy.

No German high-handedness was on display from either senior member of the German cabinet. Thank God.

Their French counterparts misunderstood the gambit. They took it as a display of business as usual. In their minds, this translates into adopting at least 50% of the French approach at the European level and maybe 50% of Germany’s.

Given very differing youth unemployment statistics, that ought to be a very difficult argument even to consider.

Even so, the French belief in the ability of government to fix things remains unperturbed.

This despite ever so gentle, but clear interventions from the German finance minister who argued that what governments can realistically do is to fix the framework. The private sector is key.

If that principle is not heeded, Mr. Schaeuble said, we would only see a repeat of past experience. Governments like to issue “urgent action” jobs programs. They whither as soon as the financial support ends.

To which France’s labor minister basically replied that the training burden could not be imposed on the private sector, especially not small firms. That’s government’s role.

Which brings us back to square one: In France, government is deemed central to any action. In Germany, it is seen as the key macro flanker and supporter of allowing for the correct measures to be taken on a massive scale at the micro level.

The biggest irony in all this is that Germany’s approach, by truly involving the private sector and holding it accountable by other means than just taxation, reflects far more solidarit√© than the French approach.