France’s German Mirror

Times have changed and Berlin is overtaking Paris as the model for a modern European city

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Unlike Paris, “a ghetto for the rich”, people can live well on little in Berlin | Photo: Koch

Unlike Paris, “a ghetto for the rich”, people can live well on little in Berlin | Photo: Koch

Berlin’s Tegel Airport, which still greets most of the passengers arriving in the capital of Europe’s leading economic power, is outdated and provincial. The opening of Schönefeld Airport, transformed into an international hub, has been delayed for more than a year for technical reasons (a somewhat reassuring challenge to Germany’s reputation for efficiency). Yet, despite the gray and chill of March in Central Europe, Berlin exudes confidence. More than ever, the city is a work in progress – confused, not very beautiful and overcharged with history.

Berlin is a construction site that has managed to transform its multiple pasts into positive energy. “Diversity Destroyed: Berlin 1933-1938” is the unifying theme of a series of exhibits marking the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power and the 75th of the Pogromnacht. At the Deutsches Historisches Museum on Unter den Linden, entire classes of young pupils and students flock to see the exhibit’s evocation of destruction by a criminal regime whose objects, from loudspeakers to uniforms and weapons, are displayed in an educational manner.

 

Avoiding a ghetto for the rich 

Young Berliners cannot ignore where they come from. Yet, perhaps because the past still rings like a warning – and is still physically visible in the topography and architecture of the city today – Berlin is striking in its simplicity, its radiant modernity (symbolised by the glass dome of the Reichstag, a conception of the British architect Norman Foster) and, above all, its intensity.

That positive energy contrasts starkly with the decadent beauty of Paris, a city that is on a path of “museification”. Of course, if you can afford to live there, Paris remains a great place to be. But Berlin is a better place to work, even if what you do is very poorly paid. The porter who brings my luggage to my hotel room is of Tunisian origin. He is a happy Berliner and a proud new German. And, even on a low salary, he can live and raise his children in the city itself.

Thanks to its moderate housing costs, Berlin has not become, like Paris, a ghetto for the rich. Unlike the French, who are handicapped by the high cost of housing, Germans’ purchasing power is more harmoniously distributed, creating more room for household consumption to contribute to economic growth.

Germany’s positive energy is, of course, the result of success translated into confidence, which Chancellor Angela Merkel incarnates with strength and simplicity.

Merkel has changed profoundly while in office. Five years ago, she did not exude the natural authority that she now possesses. Today, like Pope Francis, she is clearly at ease with herself. Has there been a French president since François Mitterrand who was truly a match for a German chancellor? If France has replaced Germany as “the sick man of Europe,” it is for political reasons, above all: vision, courage, and strength on the northern side of the Rhine, and vacillation, inertia, and weakness on the southern.

Of course, given its excessively low salaries and adverse demographic trends, Germany will continue to face difficulties. But to emphasise only these problems, as some French do, is pure escapism. German demography cannot be described as the solution to French youth unemployment, as though one could rest on a slogan such as: “They lack young people, our young people lack jobs – what a perfect match!” This widespread sentiment irresponsibly assumes that time is working in favour of France, regardless of whether it implements structural reforms.

 

Lessons from the past 

France’s current direction is a source of deep concern in Germany, whose evolution should be seen in France as a source of inspiration – an example to be emulated, even if the country must not fall into self-flagellation. Yet today’s debate in France over the German model reminds one eerily of the discussions that followed France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In June 1871, just after the war ended, the French statesman Léon Gambetta declaimed, “Our adversaries have won, because they rallied to their side foresight, discipline and science.” Germany, it seems, can still rally those eternal values.

The major difference now is that the European unification process rules out war – even economic war – between the two countries. On the contrary, in the mirror of Germany, the French must ask themselves fundamental questions. Have they made the right choices in terms of leaders and policies in recent decades?

The places of power in France do not encourage modesty. In his latest book, Days of Power, the former agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, writes condescendingly of the building that houses his Danish counterpart in Copenhagen, which he compares to low-income housing. With too much pomp, too many stumbling blocks and a dearth of dynamism, France today can and should learn from Germany. ÷

 

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at IFRI (The French Institute for International Affairs). He is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.

 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 

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