Fifty Years of Franco-German friendship
Not always easy, but reliable

Angela Merkel and François Hollande, 2012
Angela Merkel and François Hollande, 2012 | Photo (detail): Garitan, CC BY-SA 3.0

In 2013, Germans and French celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty. A survey of over 50 years of German-French friendship.

When the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the French President Charles de Gaulle signed the “Franco-German Agreement” on 22 January 1963 at the Élysée Palace, they sealed the end of more than two hundred years of “traditional enmity”. Today the alliance between Berlin and Paris is a driving force of European integration – even if the parties do not always agree about the right direction.

Eighteen years after the end of the Second World War, the Élysée Treaty was a document of reconciliation between the two states and set their bilateral cooperation on a new footing. In the year before its signing, the French President had won the hearts of Germans during his trip to their country in a surprising and, in view of the Franco-German past, moving speech, spoken in German, to the German people: “When I see you all gathered round me, when I hear your professions, I feel even more strongly than before the esteem and the confidence that I have for your great nation – yes, for the great German people. Long live Bonn, long live Germany, long live the Franco-German friendship!”

Between East and West

There can be no question that the Élysée Treaty was a milestone in European integration and placed the cooperation of Germany and France on a new and, as we know today, reliable foundation – for the good of the entire continent. Yet there was already discord only a few weeks after the conclusion of the treaty. De Gaulle’s policy towards Germany had an ulterior motive. With the help of the Franco-German alliance, he wanted to create a Europe that neither conceded a place to Britain nor sought to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States. De Gaulles’s Europe was to establish itself between East and West as an independent middle power. It was not least to this end that the Franco-German alliance was, in his eyes, to serve.

Against this idea Adenauer took an unmistakable stand. He put before the Bundestag, which had to approve the international treaty, a ratification law whose preamble contains a clear commitment to NATO and to a close partnership with the United States and expressly includes Great Britain in the terms of European integration. De Gaulle was furious. One of the most influential ministers in Adenauer’s cabinet was Ludwig Erhard; when he succeeded Adenauer as chancellor, De Gaulle therefore regarded him with a certain scepticism.

It was also scepticism that shaped the relationship of de Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, to the government of Willy Brandt. After Adenauer had taken the French by surprise with his policy of alignment with the West, Brandt irritated his French friends with his “new Ostpolitik”, or “new Eastern policy”, which championed “change through rapprochement” in the relationship to the Soviet Union and East Germany. Yet while relations stagnated at the government level, the cooperation of regions and cities made great progress. Countless cities and school partnership that were formed then have continued to this day.

And the friendship that bound the successors of Pompidou und Brandt, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, also continues. During their terms in office not only the German and French governments came closer together, but also the unity of Europe gradually became an increasing focus of efforts in the late 1970s. This included the single European currency system, which later became the European Currency Unit and finally the common currency of the euro.

Grand gestures in Verdun and Caen

One of the images of historical moments in the Franco-German friendship which has found a permanent place in the history books is that of the commemorative ceremony on November 1984, in which, hand in hand, President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl remembered those who fell in the First World War at Verdun as representatives of all those Germans and Frenchmen who had lost their lives because of the Franco-German “traditional enmity”.

Kohl declined, however, Mitterrand’s invitation to take part in an anniversary of the Normandy landing, explaining that, as German Chancellor, he had no business there. But his successor Gerhard Schröder did travel to Caen, at the invitation of Jacques Chirac, for the 60th anniversary of “D-Day” on 6 June 2004. It was the first time that a German Chancellor participated in such a ceremony.

In good times and in bad

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have left posterity no images of similar symbolic historical power as those bequeathed by Adenauer and de Gaulle or Mitterrand and Kohl. Perhaps the Franco-German relationship has now become simply “too normal” for that. Even if the partnership of Merkel and Sarkozy was anything but “love at first sight”, in the end some people saw in “Merkozy” a European “dream team”. The euro crisis drew them ever closer together.

Before the French presidential elections in 2001, Chancellor Merkel even campaigned for Sarkozy, and that even though his defeat was already apparent. Cooperation with his successor, François Hollande, has therefore been initially rather bumpy. But this has been the case at the start with all German chancellors and French presidents of the last five decades. Though the German and French governments today lie far apart on some fundamental political issues, no one need worry about the Franco-German friendship. It now stands on a solid foundation.