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France, Germany and Multilateralism

Survey by Institut Montaigne and Körber-Stiftung

France, Germany and Multilateralism
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

In an era where identity politics seems to prevail, one key element is too often overlooked, namely the fact that a commitment to universalism is part of the national DNA of some countries, including the United States and France. In brief, being "national" in France means wishing that France would have a universal message. Our country is one of the founding members of the European Union (EU). It also considers itself as the eldest daughter of the United Nations (UN), as it once was the eldest daughter of the Church. Dominique de Villepin’s speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 is one of the sacred totems of the French imaginary, as is the victory of the Football World Cup in 1998 - and now also in 2018.

Germany is also a pillar of international cooperation, although for different reasons. It plays a decisive role within the EU and invests heavily in the institutions and activities of the UN. It aspires to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

One of the main interests of the survey conducted by Kantar for Institut Montaigne and Körber-Stiftung is that it goes beyond the attitudes of states and paints a topical picture of the feelings expressed by the German and French opinions, based on quantified data. Several lessons can be drawn from this, first regarding the French public opinion, and then regarding the parallel between French and German attitudes.

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The French "universalist" bias

The French public opinion still has a real "universalist" bias, expressed by a sustained commitment to international cooperation through multilateralism.

Five topics were selected to test the opinions of the survey respondents: armed conflicts, climate change, terrorism, cyber threats and migration. On these five subjects, purely national action is favored only by a marginal minority of the French respondents (from 6% for armed conflicts to 17% for migration). On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of respondents - 92% (i.e. more than nine out of 10 French people) - consider that these issues should be dealt with by international institutions, be they European or part of the UN, or by an ad hoc coalition of partner countries.

Two other results, which confirm this first lesson, are worth noting:

  • when asked whether it is appropriate to cooperate with other countries, even if it might involve France having to sacrifice some of its own interests, a large majority - 78% - of those who support international cooperation respond positively;
  • a relative majority - 42% - would like France to be more involved in the EU and 37% would like it to maintain its current level of involvement. Only 18% advocate less engagement (55% of whom are supporters of the Rassemblement National).

The French’s mixed feelings facing international cooperation

However, the French people’s support for international cooperation is not blind. Their perception of the results of this cooperation is in fact nuanced. 

Only a third of the French - 35% - believe that their country's membership to the United Nations is beneficial (including 46% of Emmanuel Macron’s party’s supporters, La République En Marche). 53% consider that France's role at the United Nations has both advantages and disadvantages. As a result, a relative majority of the French - 47% - do not want their country's level of commitment to the United Nations to change. Only 36% of them would prefer a greater commitment.  

The French thus expect much more from the EU (42% want their country to be more involved in the EU) than they do from the UN. However, only two out of 10 French people consider that the EU brings more advantages than disadvantages to their country, six out of 10 considering that the two balance each other out.

With regards to the challenges of international cooperation, the survey provides a fairly clear hierarchy.

Climate change - for 87% of the French - and, to a lesser extent, terrorism (78%) are urgently in need of international action. Next come armed conflicts (48%), migration (43%), and cyber threats (38%).

The Franco-German tandem on the same wavelength

Finally, there seems to be a broad convergence between French and German attitudes.

  • The preference for international cooperation is overwhelming in both countries: more than nine out of 10 respondents in both countries believe that a cooperative approach at the international level is necessary. The Germans are even more ready than the French to favor cooperation in all cases, even if it could mean undermining immediate national interests. In Germany, the majority of people who refuse international cooperation are AfD supporters. In France, 27% of those who endorse this refusal are supporters of the right-wing party Les Républicains, and 22% are supporters of the extreme right-wing party Rassemblement National.
  • A similarity on a somewhat counter-intuitive point can also be observed: 84% of the Germans and 77% of the French respondents consider that foreign policy should be driven by values, such as the respect for human rights, rather than by interests, such as economic ones.
  • Regarding which topics should be given priority for international action, the same reactions can be observed in both countries. Indeed, more than the majority of respondents in both Germany and France agree that the environmental crisis should be tackled first. Cybersecurity and especially immigration are considered as secondary priorities.
  • Overall, the differences in reaction among respondents from the two countries are more matters of nuance than significant gaps: in Germany, almost half of the respondents consider the EU membership to be an advantage, while only a quarter of the respondents in France share this opinion. In both cases, most of the respondents consider that the advantages and disadvantages are balanced. Finally, a majority of Germans have more trust in the EU while a majority of French people invest their hopes in the United Nations.

The overall picture drawn by this survey in both countries emphasizes the significant support for pragmatic international cooperation and multilateralism, with different frameworks (the UN, the EU, others) depending on the topic. This is particularly true with regards to climate change and the fight against terrorism. The issue of migration is the only one for which the European framework is privileged over the global (UN) framework. Moreover, the respondents’ assessment of the results of international cooperation is still nuanced. This contrasts with the desire of 42% of the French people for greater involvement in the EU (and 36% for greater involvement in the UN). How should this contrast be interpreted?

Maybe we can understand these figures as the expression of a positive bias in favor of international cooperation, but coupled with an expectation of concrete results, all the more so since exclusively national possibilities for action are perceived as limited on issues such as climate change and terrorism. If this conclusion is correct, it legitimizes initiatives such as the Paris Peace Forum, of which Institut Montaigne and Körber-Stiftung are founding members alongside other institutions. Indeed this Forum aims to identify lines of action based on operational projects, supported by states or non-governmental organizations. Through this approach, it aims to promote effective multilateralism, which seems to be an adequate response to the opinions of the French and German people as revealed by this survey.

View full survey (french version)


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