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French-German ties: PM Attal visits Berlin amid tense times

Gabriel Attal is seen as a close confidant of French President Emmanuel Macron

Gabriel Attal is seen as a close confidant of French President Emmanuel Macron

During Gabriel Attal's last visit to Germany, this past December, he was already the center of attention. As France's then-education minister, he spoke in front of delegates at the Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly — in the former plenary chamber of the German parliament in Bonn, where chancellors like Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder once held court.

The 34-year-old, named as France's youngest-ever prime minister in early January, spoke with concern about how there was dwinding interest in France and Germany to learn each other's languages. He pointed out it was still a problem more than five years after both countries signed the Aachen Treaty, intended to further boost cooperation and integration.

"The situation is not good. It is worrying," Attal admitted, referencing the dramatic decline in German language students in French schools. At secondary schools, the number of students learning German has dropped from 15.7% to 13.5% in the past three years — a downward trend that looks set to continue.

German language unappealing for French students

German is seen today as an unappealing choice. And it's not just at secondary schools — universities have also reported a drop in German studies.

"There is a lack of dynamism," said Attal. "We don't even have enough applicants to fill the vacancies for German teachers." Plans for the future of German instruction in France are modest, with Attal saying the number of German students is only expected to rise 10% by 2030.

Though Attal gave his speech in French, he benefited from excellent German language instruction during his time at school.

He completed his secondary education at the Ecole Alsacienne, a private school in the 6th arrondissement of Paris. The renowned school was founded in 1874 by former residents of the Alsace region, who came to Paris after their homeland was annexed by Germany three years earlier. Alsace, now once again part of France, borders directly on southern Germany.

"Learning the culture and language of our neighbor is a top priority and our biggest challenge," Attal said in December.

As France's new prime minister, Attal has filled his Cabinet with ministers who have a background in German culture and language. Bruno Le Maire, minister of finance, the economy and now also energy, is a fluent German speaker.

Le Maire's new portfolio is an important one: since Germany's phaseout of nuclear energy last year, the issue has been a perennial source of conflict between both countries.

Talks in Berlin likely to cover Ukraine, farmers' protests

Attal's meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday evening, however, will likely be dominated by more pressing issues. The talks will focus on "bilateral, European and international issues, in addition to economic policies," the chancellor's spokesperson said on Friday.

Even though French President Emmanuel Macron is responsible for foreign policy, Scholz and Attal are also expected to talk about the chancellor's call for more French military support for Ukraine.

Another potential agenda item: the future of the free trade deal between the European Union and the Mercosur trade group in South America.

The agreement was due to be signed this past weekend, but the French government stepped on the brakes in the wake of the massive farmers' protests, which have gripped both France and Germany in recent weeks.

The farmers' anger and their attention-grabbing highway protests have put huge pressure on Attal's government. France has tried to appease the farmers with further promises, among them Attal's announcement on Thursday of €150 million ($162 million) in aid for livestock farmers and a pledge for "more sovereignty."

Livestock farmers are particularly worried about their income, should the agreement come into force. According to EU calculations, poultry, beef and pork imports from South America are expected to increase significantly once the deal is done.

"In principle, I'm not against free trade agreements," Macron said recently. "But we can't expect European producers to comply with more and more rules, and at the same time negotiate free trade agreements, like we did in the 1990s."

This article was originally written in German.