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Germany: A Bonn-Paris-London Axis Arouses Anxieties -- Analysis

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's visit to Paris by German Social Democrat chancellor-elect Gerhard Schroeder, his first trip abroad since Sunday's election, provided the French with the public reassurances of enduring close Paris-Bonn ties avidly sought by the man who had invited him, conservative President Jacques Chirac.

In luncheon talks with Chirac and later discussions with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and a number of French ministers, Schroeder was said to have stressed that the Franco-German relationship, long considered the motor of European integration, would survive the coming change of government in Bonn. Before leaving the President's Elysee Palace, he pointedly told journalists that he had agreed with Chirac's position on the need for better regulation of global capital flows to head off world recession. With Chirac beaming alongside, Schroeder said that "the president and I are of one opinion (on the matter)."

In an evening interview with French television (TF1), Schroeder emphasized that he was, in his phrase, "among France's friends." He said that the Franco-German relationship transcends partisanship and change. He also said that, during their talks, Chirac and he had agreed that renewed Franco-German relations should not exclude Britain. Earlier, at a press conference, Schroeder declared that he and Chirac "think the process of Britain coming closer to Europe (begun after the Labor Party's victory last May) should be supported by both countries --it's important for Europe."

It was precisely Schroeder's earlier warm words about Britain's Labor government --whose slogan, "the New Middle," he had adopted for his own campaign --that had aroused anxieties in France about Paris' long-time privileged relation with Bonn. Chirac himself had expressed some of those fears in an article published simultaneously Tuesday in major French and German conservative dailies ("Le Figaro" and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung"). The President worried that, in his words, "our bilateral relationship may seem less intense (now). The emotion of reconciliation, so strong for those who went before us, is attenuating with the passing of generations."

In the newspaper article, Chirac came close to expressing explicit concern that a German leader who grew up after World War Two --Schroeder was born in the last year of the war-- might end up taking France too much for granted. "Our two peoples." the President wrote, "give the impression of not knowing each other so well (any more)..."

"Many analysts believe that, behind Chirac's and other French officials' concerns, lies the fear that the unless the Franco-German relation is revitalized before the German capital moves from Bonn to Berlin next year, France may have big problems in continuing to steer Germany on what one French officials admits is "a European course of French design." For Paris, the privileged relation with Bonn is the keystone of the European Union, and Germany's support of France's ambitious vision of a global, strategic and political role for the EU is crucial. Germany will begin a six-month presidency of the EU in January.

Throughout the German election campaign, Schroeder repeatedly referred to an emerging triangular relationship between Germany and its two major European partners, Britain and France. Yesterday, he sought to allay fears that his election meant a turning away from Paris toward London. He told journalists: "It is no accident that I am here (in Paris) before negotiations over (Germany's) new government have begun."

But analysts suggest that there is a real threat to German-French relations symbolized by the rise to power of a new, postwar generation of leaders in both countries. The imperative realities of peace and reconciliation that drive their predecessors on both sides of the Rhine have given way to rumblings of nationalism on both sides of the Rhine. On Monday, Schroeder asserted that being a good European did not mean abandoning national interests --provocative language in the present delicate state of Franco-German relations. In a recent article in Newsweek magazine's European edition, French geopolitical analyst Dominique Moisi wrote that "the French have been defending what they perceive as their national interest with a perseverance that translated into lack of self-confidence." Moisi said that, "hesitant about their influence in an enlarged Europe, with a strong Germany at the center and a more economically dynamic Britain, the French are also anxious about the applicability of their model of state centralization to the requirements of a new EU."

With such strong French doubts and Schroeder's probably impossible effort to be best friends simultaneously with France and Britain, there seems little likelihood for the moment of a so-called smooth Bonn-Paris-London axis, a favorite slogan of journalistic comment in recent days. Rather, despite that fact that all three nations are ruled by Center-Left governments, there seem strong indications that the clear strains and tensions among them will erupt in the very institution that the French and the Germans have largely created and the British largely deigned until Tony Blair's election: the European Union and its new single currency, the euro.