Analysis: France-Germany ties fade
By DEBORAH SEWARD (AP) – Nov 10, 2009
PARIS — Throughout the Cold War, Germany was the steadfast trans-Atlantic ally — and France the perpetual skeptic. Paris snubbed NATO, booted allied soldiers off its soil and sought a privileged relationship with Moscow.
Then one night the Berlin Wall fell — and 20 years later, the roles subtly have shifted.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seeking to be a NATO stalwart, bringing his country back into the alliance’s military command structure earlier this year. As a result, France received two NATO command posts.
At the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — while reaching out to the United States — is pursuing closer ties with Russia that have left Washington unsettled.
This evolution in France and Germany’s relationships with the Cold War superpowers is altering the shape of their own relationship, which both countries long considered the “motor” of the European Union. Sarkozy and Merkel will send yet another powerful sign of their countries’ friendship Wednesday at the Arc de Triomphe, when for the first time French and German leaders jointly mark the anniversary of the Nov. 11 armistice that ended World War I.
Symbols aside, as much as Sarkozy and Merkel might like to emphasize the privileged nature of the Franco-German couple, ties between the countries are no longer what they used to be — and pushing the restart button over and over again does not guarantee a smooth ride.
“Both sides’ sense of the relationship has been lost,” said Josef Janning, senior director of the Bertelsmann Foundation. The two countries used to be at “the core of bargaining” in the European Union, but “currently, nobody really knows what the purpose” of the relationship is, Janning said.
Germany and France spent the decades after World War II in a long, painful period of “reconciliation” as Germany atoned for the Holocaust and its occupation of France. After the Berlin Wall came down, Germany found it had to atone yet again, this time with Poland and Russia, both of which suffered greatly under Nazi invasions.
Despite deep historical wariness all around, Poland and Russia also offered tremendous economic and even diplomatic opportunities for Germany to expand its influence eastward and thereby reduced Berlin’s need to rely only on Paris as its major partner on the continent.
In her first speech Wednesday to the German parliament since winning a second term as chancellor, Merkel said she wanted to pursue a broad security dialogue with Russia. She did not mention France or the Franco-German relationship in the speech.
Germany’s determination to make its relationship with Russia a top priority took off under Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who made a strategic decision to tether his nation firmly to Russia’s immense energy wealth.
Unlike Schroeder, Merkel has avoided fawning on Russia: She has moved to improve relations with Poland and has pledged to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States in Afghanistan. But she has continued to deepen ties with Moscow through business and diplomatic initiatives.
Conscious of its slipping profile in Germany, the French government in recent months has multiplied efforts to revive the relationship. The courtship includes high-profile political gestures, as well as numerous conferences devoted to the French-German relationship.
In July, a new Franco-German military brigade marched down the Champs-Elysees on Bastille Day with Sarkozy looking on. The French Foreign Ministry on Monday spearheaded a huge light show and concert on the Place de la Concorde, celebrations billed as a “present” to the German people on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall. And on Wednesday, Merkel joins Sarkozy to commemorate the 91st anniversary of the armistice.
In the long run, however, in the absence of concrete steps to reassert joint French-German leadership in Europe, these gestures may not have great meaning.
“If you kiss,” Janning said, “it doesn’t mean that much because it is part of the in and out of global diplomacy.”
While France loves the big gestures, the Germans are in a pragmatic mood these days, French-German specialists say.
It shows in some of the business deals Germany has struck in recent months.
Earlier this year, German industrial conglomerate giant Siemens pulled out of a nuclear power plant joint venture with France’s Areva and then turned around to engage in talks on forming a nuclear energy venture with Russia’s Rosatom. Siemens built the new high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg for a line expected to open later this year.
“The style fundamentally has changed,” Hans Stark, who chairs research into France and Germany at the French Institute for International Affairs, told a gathering of diplomats, analysts and journalists this week.
Deborah Seward has covered political developments in Europe for The Associated Press since 1988.
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