German link with France strengthens over 50 years


Paris and Berlin mark their longest period of peaceful coexistence today. It has survived the cold war and euro crisis

Celebrations to mark today’s 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty got under way early chez Merkel.

Last Friday, in the interests of Franco-German research, I visited the food hall of the Galeries Lafayette department store on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse.

At the fish counter, I happened upon the chancellor’s notoriously private husband, Joachim, stocking up on smoked salmon with basil and lemon – a snip at €36 per kilo.

Don’t be surprised, therefore, if the German leader gives President François Hollande a taste in Berlin today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty.

At an official ceremony, the two will praise the 1963 agreement of Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, and Konrad Adenauer, the postwar chancellor of Germany, as the foundation stone for the longest, closest and most peaceful period in the two countries’ difficult history. The marriage has proven surprisingly durable considering it originated in a very different world, with differing political priorities.

“Adenauer’s goal was to drive on Franco-German reconciliation,” said Ulrich Pfeil, professor of German studies at the Université de Lorraine in Metz. “De Gaulle shared these intentions but for him it was above all else about the emancipation of Europe from the US.”

Adenauer’s influence

Rather than the mere protocol Paris envisaged, Adenauer pushed for a full treaty to bind Bonn – and his Atlanticist successor Ludwig Erhard – into a full-blown Franco-German partnership with regular meetings at all political levels.

Paris agreed to a treaty only to watch the Bundestag add a ratification preamble underlining Bonn’s close political and economic contacts with the US, Britain and Nato.

With promises of a monogamous marriage disappointed, de Gaulle noted that “treaties are like roses and little girls – their time soon passes”.

But Adenauer, a wily rose breeder and a late bloomer as chancellor, later responded: “The rose – and I should know – is the most persistent of plants. It lasts through the winter.”

And so it has been with this closely watched, occasionally thorny relationship through the chill of the cold war to the shudder of the euro zone crisis.

The latter has left its mark on the relationship, with French demands for greater economic stimulus measures largely cancelled out by Germany’s austerity-first policy.

Politico-economic gap

Merkel’s strong hand, drawing on Germany’s reform-driven revival, has exposed a growing economic and political gap with its western neighbour.

As the French weary of being bombarded with media reports on the German reform model, Germans watch anxiously to see if Hollande can become a reforming Mitterand II. Beyond the euro zone debate, the capitals make no effort to disguise policy gaps, from Berlin’s turn against nuclear energy to France’s move on Mali.

A poll by the IFOP research institute showed that while 85 per cent of Germans view the balance of power in the Franco-German relationship as more or less equal, just 59 per cent of French agree. Despite the asymmetric perception, German analysts are optimistic about the relationship thriving in its second half-century.

Just as eight million young people have participated in Franco-German exchanges set up by the Élysée Treaty, a Berlin-Paris civil servant exchange keeps channels of communication open regardless of the political differences.

“The most creative thing in the Franco-German relationship is the fights. The Merkozy symbiosis was the worst thing we could have had,” said Ulrike Guérot of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. She is hopeful the Merkollande relationship, like all in the past, will eventually find its groove.

“The creative tension is when the relationship worked best, finding compromises on the big questions acceptable for all of Europe.”

Claire Demesmay, of the German Council on Foreign Relations, is sanguine about current uncertainty, part of what she sees as a necessary correction, delayed by two decades.

“Germany has a stronger position because the world changed in 1989 – it’s not just sovereign again but benefited from globalisation,” she said.

Strong allies

“France is exact opposite, its cold war importance has left it with no real importance today. The asymmetry started there.”

But the euro zone crisis has taught Berlin that it decouples from Paris at its peril.

“Germany doesn’t want to take up a leadership role on its own because whoever marches ahead alone gets the beating,” she said. “Germany still has to share leadership and needs France as a bridge to southern European countries.”